These days the itsy bitsy spider is doing more than just climbing the waterspout. It’s inspiring researchers, and it may be spinning the future of directional microphone technology for hearing aids.
With millions of Americans now affected by hearing loss and tinnitus, scientists and hearing aid companies are making it a top priority to research and develop new technology solutions to help those with hearing loss hear more naturally and effectively. While hearing aids can now mask tinnitus, connect via Bluetooth and are often small enough to be almost undetectable to others, background noise and how to best overcome it without bulky design still poses a challenge.
For those with hearing loss, background noise can often prove to be not only a barrier to social interaction and communication but also an exhausting ordeal. It’s for this reason that the most recent research into creating the next generation of directional microphones for hearing aids is making headlines.
The findings of a study out of Binghamton University, titled “Sensing fluctuating airflow with spider silk” and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) in October 2017, are proving intriguing and a potential game-changer for hearing aid technology. Professor Dr. Ron Miles has long studied small animals and insects, such as spiders, mosquitos and crickets, and how their hearing differs from that of people. In many cases, while humans hear thanks to our eardrums, these tiny creatures often hear with the help of fine hairs. It is also believed that spiders may hear with the help of their webs in addition to the hairs on their bodies. It was this interest in how small animals hear, how that may translate to better solutions for hearing loss and hearing aid technology and an epiphany when seeing a spider web while walking across campus that led to the most recent study.
For the study, Miles teamed up with graduate student Jian Zhou to explore “hair sensors.” While not the first to attempt to recreate the hearing ability of insects and arachnids through hair-thin fibers, Miles and Zhou stumbled upon an entirely new fiber that could not only move well to pick up sound but was also strong enough to get the job done: spider silk. With the help of a lab full of hard-working spiders, Miles and Zhou got to work. The team took spider silk, coated it with gold and added a magnetic field to obtain an electronic signal and create a highly effective directional microphone.
“This provides a very different way of obtaining a different signal that is not done now,” Miles said. “The ability to get rid of unwanted sound all the way across the audible band and to detect that different signal with high fidelity across the audible band seems like it will provide an advantage.”
While this technology is still some years away from going to market, Miles sees that it could change the way people with hearing loss communicate with background noise.
There’s no need to wait any longer to hear well. Work with your hearing health care professional to find the best hearing aid features and learn strategies to navigate noisy situations with hearing loss.