Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; current models are remarkably effective and feature remarkable digital capabilities, such as wifi connectivity, that substantially enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in specific instances hearing aids have some trouble 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 surprising source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the secret to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem pertaining to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are finding is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more efficient than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a much wider range of frequencies, permitting the insect to sense sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has ordinarily been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to offer straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely 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 considering the hearing mechanism of various insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to design a completely new mechanism that can be put to use 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 equipped with a new 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 longer battery life.
  2. The capability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.

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