Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; current models are remarkably effective and incorporate powerful digital features, such as wireless connectivity, that markedly 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. Cutting out background noise

But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a surprising source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the answer to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem relating to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are discovering is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.

The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a bigger range of frequencies, allowing the insect to detect sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has commonly been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide simple amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a 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 detecting and perceiving sound. By examining the hearing mechanism of various insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to generate 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 evaluating hearing aids outfitted 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 ultimately result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while erasing background noise.

Researchers will also be testing 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For the majority of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to reconstruct 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 AUGMENT it.