Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and incorporate impressive digital features, such as wifi connectivity, that considerably 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 challenges 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 answer to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem in terms of hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more proficient than our own.

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

Hearing aid design has ordinarily been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re questioning how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By evaluating the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to generate a brand new mechanism that can be used 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 assessing 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 eventually result in smaller hearing aids, reduced 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 excluding background noise.

Researchers will also be testing 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 produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.

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