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Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; current models are highly effective and include powerful digital features, such as wifi connectivity, that strongly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in certain instances hearing aids have some challenges with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

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

Why insects hold the key to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem relating to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are finding is that the approach insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, enabling the insect to detect sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can detect 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 inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.

Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring 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 several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to establish a completely new mechanism that can be put to use 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 testing hearing aids outfitted 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 result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The capacity to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out 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 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 building a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.