How the Earth is Helping Us Understand Hearing Loss

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Earth provides us with the basic needs of survival: air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and space in which to live. We know this. But what you may not know is that Earth has also provided us with key insights about hearing loss and how to achieve better hearing technologies!

How? Keep reading.

Impact of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss doesn’t just affect humans. Whales, dolphins and bats are known for utilizing sound as not only a form of communication but also to help them move around. The Washington Post recently discussed a study that shows hearing loss and interference as a serious problem for whales. An interfering noise at the right frequency or a loss of hearing can leave whales distressed, lost and possibly even unable to hunt for food. The same goes for dolphins. Proposed seismic testing in Taranaki’s Marine Mammal Sanctuary for oil could lead to permanently damaging the hearing of whales and dolphins both within and near the sanctuary. “Because dolphins navigate with sound it would be the equivalent of blinding a human,” one source stated.

Sense of Hearing
Clues about the origin and evolution of the sense of hearing can be found in a creature from the depths of the ocean – the squid. Until recently, little was known about how well a squid could hear; whether or not they relied on hearing to navigate, to sense danger or avoid marine predators. A 2012 study on the hearing and neuroanatomy of squid showcased many similarities between the hearing systems of squid and humans.
By testing how sensitive squid are to sounds and looking at their frequency range, we are able to use squid “ears” and hair cells as models for examining human hearing.

Noise Reduction
Step back onto land, and you’ll hear the persistent chirping of the Zebra finch. Researchers have long been interested in the male songbird’s complex vocalizations used during courtship, but a recent study revealed how finch brains recognize these vocalizations in noisy environments.

The finch’s ability to respond to birdsongs and ignore everything else is similar to our own ability to recognize speech in a noisy environment. This finding led primary researcher Frédéric Theunissen, Ph.D. and graduate student Tyler Lee to generating a computer algorithm designed to help reduce noise, which could help fine-tune hearing aids to better extract speech from noise.

In 2009, we tested the effects of noise reduction using an algorithm similar to Theunisssen and Lee’s and found an unexpected benefit. While noise reduction doesn’t make speech more understandable, it does reduce the brainpower required to process it. For someone who has trouble hearing in noisy environments, this finding can mean the difference between being part of the conversation or checking out of it.

Hearing Aid Technologies
Earth also provides us with natural elements to model our hearing aid technologies after.

On a lotus plant, water droplets form spheres and completely roll off the leaves, carrying dirt with them. Known as the Lotus Effect, this self-cleaning practice is the model for the protective hearing aid coatings, HydraShield 2 and Surface NanoShield on our NuEar hearing aids. Exposure to moisture, wax, oil and other liquids is one of the most common problems hearing aids face. Used on the receivers, battery doors and microphone covers of our hearing aids, these coatings provide resistance against these substances to help prolong hearing aid performance and help reduce hearing aid repairs.

With clues about the origin of the sense of hearing, animals who help us better understand how noise reduction works and natural elements that we can look to for innovation, Earth is helping achieve better hearing every day. It gives us the tools and resources we need to manufacture and deliver advanced hearing solutions, bring people together and ultimately enrich the lives of individuals with hearing loss.

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