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New developments in hearing aid design

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Almost 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) that are age 18 and over report some trouble hearing. This makes hearing loss one of the most prevalent conditions that cause disability in the United States.

Hearing loss can be genetic, or it can be caused by disease, trauma, medication, or even long-term exposure to extreme noise. (Read about common types of hearing loss here.)

Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by a problem in the cochlea (the auditory nerve). This is part of the ear that deliver sound impulses to the brain.

Hearing loss affects:

  • People of all ages,.
  • All segments of the population.
  • All socioeconomic levels.

It can interfere with a human’s physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social functions. The main form of treatment is hearing aid technology.  However,  people who are 70 years old (and older) that suffer hearing loss and who would benefit from hearing aids tend not to use them. Less than 30 per cent of this population have ever used them.

For adults aged 20 to 69, who could be helped by hearing aids, the usage is even lower. Only about 16 per cent have benefited from them.

A hearing aid works by boosting sound. This allows wearers to experience sounds that would otherwise not be heard. a new generation of hearing aids can connect to other devices, like TVs or movie theatre sound systems to help boost sound for the wearer.

Although the development of microelectronic components has enabled new digital hearing aid technology to replace earlier devices based on analog circuits, the underlying damage to the inner ear remains a limitation when the user is confronted by multiple speakers or background noise.

Hearing aid users often complain of straining to focus on a single speech sound among competing sources at meetings, banquets, and sporting events.

One way to solve this problem is to move the hearing aid user closer to the person speaking and further away from noise sources. Directional microphone technology also provides another approach by pointing a device.

Scientists have studied the hearing of the tiny flying bug (called Ormia ochracea) which inspired the development of an innovative directional microphone that could improve hearing aids. They reverse-engineered the physics and biology behind the insect’s ability to localize sound.  This understanding provided engineers with the ability to improve directional microphones small enough to use in hearing aids. They found a way through this to also focus the hearing aid on one sound source at a time.

Capitalizing on the knowledge learned from studying Ormia, another group of scientists successfully completed design and testing of a clever microphone based on the design elements. The scientists used silicon microfabrication technology to make the critical sensing elements required for a working microphone.


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