Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and come with incredible digital capabilities, like wireless connectivity, that substantially improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, 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 secret to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem related to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are identifying is that the system 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 much wider range of frequencies, permitting the insect to sense sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has commonly been guided 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.

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 considering the hearing mechanism of different 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

Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be assessing hearing aids furnished with a unique kind of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.

Researchers will also be trying out 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 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.