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Present day hearing aids have come a long way; current models are remarkably effective and include exceptional digital capabilities, such as wireless connectivity, that markedly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in certain situations hearing aids have some trouble with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Cutting out background noise

But that may soon change, as the most current research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unexpected source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the key to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem in terms of hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are finding is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more proficient than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a bigger range of frequencies, enabling the insect to perceive sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has customarily been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.

Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of detecting and perceiving sound. By assessing the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to construct a completely new mechanism that can be applied in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be assessing hearing aids equipped with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately lead to smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.

Researchers will also be trying out 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.

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