Modern hearing aids have come a long way; present models are highly effective and incorporate remarkable digital features, such as wireless connectivity, that strongly 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. Cutting out 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 when it comes to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are discovering is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more effective than our own.

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

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

Borrowing 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 assessing the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to establish a brand new mechanism that can be utilized 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 evaluating hearing aids furnished with a unique type 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 lead to smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The ability 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 trying out 3D printing methods 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 constructing a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.