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

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in some instances hearing aids have some difficulty with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating 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 secret to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem pertaining to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the system insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more efficient than our own.

The internal organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a wider range of frequencies, permitting the insect to recognize sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more precise than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has typically been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to provide simple 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 sensing and perceiving sound. By investigating the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to construct a brand new mechanism that can be applied in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be evaluating hearing aids outfitted with a new 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 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 erasing background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing methods 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 attempt to reconstruct 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 ENHANCE it.

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