Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; present models are remarkably effective and incorporate incredible digital features, like wifi connectivity, that radically improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in certain situations hearing aids have some difficulty with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the most recent 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 equivalent problem regarding hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are identifying is that the approach insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a much wider range of frequencies, permitting the insect to recognize sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has generally 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.

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 detecting and perceiving sound. By examining the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to generate a completely new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Experts 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 new type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The capacity to more accurately 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 procedures 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 engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to reconstruct 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 IMPROVE it.