Hearing loss is a common complaint in the elderly and while hearing aids are often seen as the solution, the technology is far from perfect. Now, scientists have come up with a device that tackles one of the biggest problems for wearers – background noise.
Researchers at Columbia University have been working on a hearing aid that is controlled by the mind. It filters out background sound, allowing the wearer to focus on a single conversation without other noises being amplified at the same time.
While some of the most advanced devices on the market at present do cut down on background noise, there is no way for them to determine what the wearer wants to listen to. The new hearing aid will pick up all of the voices present and then separate them into separate speakers.
The main voice is then distinguished from the wearer’s own brain signals, showing who it is they wish to focus on. This individual is then amplified and the others muted, so that a clear understanding can be gained.
This whole process takes around ten seconds, so will still require patience, but is seen as a significant breakthrough for the hard of hearing. It could be a game changer in the development of hearing aids in future.
Professor Nima Mesgarani, author of the study, told The Times: “This work combines the state-of-the-art from two disciplines: speech engineering and auditory attention decoding. Our study takes a significant step towards automatically separating an attended speaker from the mixture.”
An earlier area of study that looked at nerve responses in the brain has paved the way for this latest advance. It found that measuring the responses made it possible to determine who the listener’s so-called voice target was. This is something technology has never been able to mimic in the past.
Times when it can be particularly difficult for the elderly to follow what is going on can include outings to noisy restaurants or parties. It is often at family events when it is also prevalent, as several generations get together and multiple conversations are happening in the same room.
Such instances can become frustrating for hearing aid wearers and mean all the noise becomes overwhelming and indecipherable. It can lead to them feeling left out of social engagements or dreading the idea of them in the first place.
Further studies on the device are required before it can be brought to market, but early indications are that it could improve the quality of life of its users. Nearly all of the people who tested the hearing aid in trials said that they’d like to continue to wear it.
It is not yet known when the technology could become available to buy, but it is something concerned relatives may wish to look out for in the future. As hearing aids become more advanced, they become better at imitating the natural abilities of the sense.