Present day hearing aids have come a long way; present models are highly effective and contain incredible digital capabilities, such as wifi connectivity, that considerably enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in some situations hearing aids have some challenges with two things:

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

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

Why insects hold the secret to improved hearing aids

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

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a wider range of frequencies, allowing the insect to sense sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can perceive the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has commonly been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to supply simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a completely 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 sensing and perceiving sound. By evaluating the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to generate a completely new mechanism that can be put to use 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 achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The ability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while excluding 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 most of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Instead of trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.

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