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Today’s hearing aids have come a long way; present models are remarkably effective and feature remarkable digital functions, like wireless connectivity, that dramatically enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in specific scenarios 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 unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the secret to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem regarding hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are discovering is that the system insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.

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

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

Finding 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 examining the hearing mechanism of various insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to establish a brand new mechanism that can be used 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 furnished 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 eventually lead to smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while erasing 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 the majority of their history, hearing aids have been produced 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 establishing a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.