Present day hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and feature impressive digital features, such as wifi connectivity, that significantly 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 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 latest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the answer to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem relating to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers 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 more compact and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, enabling the insect to perceive sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more precise than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has historically 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 scientists are now asking a completely different question.

Borrowing 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 assessing the hearing mechanism of a variety of insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to produce a brand new mechanism that can be applied 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 assessing hearing aids equipped with a new 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 longer battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing procedures 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 constructed 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 creating a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.