Present day hearing aids have come a long way; current models are highly effective and feature incredible digital capabilities, like wifi connectivity, that strongly improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in a few scenarios hearing aids have some trouble 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 key to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem related to hearing: the conversion 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 effective than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a greater range of frequencies, permitting the insect to recognize sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has traditionally been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists 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 detecting and perceiving sound. By considering the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to construct a brand new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Scientists 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 equipped with a new kind 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 capacity to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.

Researchers will also be testing 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 designed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to reproduce the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.

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