Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; current models are highly effective and come with amazing digital capabilities, 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 some instances hearing aids have some difficulty 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 improved hearing aids

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

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

Hearing aid design has ordinarily been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer straightforward 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 examining the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to develop a completely new mechanism that can be used 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 furnished 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 capability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing procedures 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 designed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to replicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.

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