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Present day hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and incorporate amazing digital functions, such as wifi connectivity, that markedly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in some 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 most recent 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 same problem in regard to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are finding is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a broader range of frequencies, enabling the insect to sense sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has normally been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer simple amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely 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 considering the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to develop a brand new mechanism that can be put to use 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 evaluating hearing aids furnished 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 lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while excluding background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 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 engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to reconstruct the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are creating a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.