How Are Bugs Helping Science Improve Hearing Aids?

You may not appreciate creepy crawlies when they’re watching you from the corner of your bedroom or buzzing around your picnic at Dornwood Park, but maybe you should. It turns out, some bugs are helping scientists improve hearing technology.

Flies

A black fly on a leaf.

The Ormia ochrecea, a small yellow fly native to the Southern U.S. and Mexico, has perhaps the greatest directional hearing ability in the animal kingdom.

According to Andrew Mason, associate professor of biology at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, “These flies have highly specialized ears that provide the most acute directional hearing of any animal… The mechanism that makes their hearing so exceptional has even led to a range of bio-inspired technology, like the mini-directional microphones used in hearing aids.”

But what makes the Ormia’s ears so special? Both of the fly’s eardrums are connected together. When one eardrum vibrates as a soundwave passes through, it pushes the other one, too. The miniscule timeframe between when the two eardrums activate allows the fly to detect which direction a sound is coming from. The structure of the eardrums also helps keep the Ormia from being distracted by other noises.

Hearing aid engineers are working to see how the Ormia’s eardrums could be developed into artificial sensors that better locate signals passing through hearing aids in order to help wearers localize sound.

Spiders

Spiders don’t have eardrums, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hear – or, for that matter, help you hear.

Researchers Dr. Ron Miles and Jian Zhou published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in October 2017. The researchers have been studying the hearing of small animals, particularly how they can inspire ideas that will improve the directional microphones in hearing technology.

Most hearing aids with directional microphones contain two microphones spaced out in a way that measures the difference in frequencies and timing of incoming sounds. For this study, the researchers are looking into how the fiber used in the microphone can detect directionally-dependent signals.

They found that spider silk, which is thin, flexible and very strong, provided the perfect material for this endeavor. Miles and Zhou keep a colony of happy spiders who spin silk for their research.

These microphones are not on the market yet, but the research is promising.

For more information about today’s hearing aids or to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert, call Topeka ENT today.

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