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The Future Is Today: Brain-Controlled Hearing Aids

When you imagine what the future will be like in, say, 20 years, what do you see? Pop culture fosters expectations of flying cars, personal jetpacks, hoverboards, and much more. Some recent technological advances even seem like something you would find in a science fiction novel, not in real life—like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality technologies.
Another futuristic advancement that may soon be a reality is more closely related to current hearing devices than to flying cars: brain-controlled hearing aids. Hearing aids have already seen numerous advances and developments in recent years, making them more effective than ever before. Today’s hearing aids are smaller, more comfortable, more discreet, and more powerful than those of years past.
Even with recent advances, hearing aids are still imperfect. One area where hearing aid users often notice a big difference from before they wore or needed hearing aids is in listening to a speaker when other noise is present. In a person with normal hearing, your brain distinguishes between the target speaker and all other noises, allowing you to focus on the target and minimize your attention to other speakers or sounds.
However, hearing aids cannot automatically perform this same function. If you increase the volume on your hearing aid in an effort to better hear the target speaker, you are also increasing the volume on all of the background noise. Some hearing aids allow the user to identify a target speaker by turning their head or gaze towards the target speaker, or by manually selecting the target speaker. These features are helpful yet imperfect; if the hearing aid user cannot maintain a gaze in the direction of the target speaker, does not want to use manual selections, or the target speaker is very close to another speaker, these features come up short.
Enter brain-controlled hearing aids. Previous research has determined that when a person focuses their listening efforts on a certain speaker in a noisy environment, their brain waves track the voice of the target speaker. The aim of a brain-controlled hearing aid is to monitor the brainwaves of the user in order to facilitate hearing and amplifying the voice of the target speaker.
Although much research and development remains to be explored in this field, recent research has shown promise in separating and amplifying the sound of a target speaker among background noise and other speakers. In a 2019 experiment, researchers used an auditory attention decoding (AAD) process to detect and amplify a target speaker among mixed background noise. The study participants indicated that it was significantly easier to follow the voice of the target speaker in the AAD-enhanced audio than in the original mixed audio. This advance can be used in brain-controlled hearing aids to amplify the voice of the target speaker and enable the listener to better follow a specific voice.
One major obstacle that remains to be overcome by researchers is determining a noninvasive and nonintrusive way to monitor the brain signals of the hearing aid user. This, along with an AAD process that accurately and rapidly identifies the target speaker, will present a challenge for researchers and developers. Still, the promise of brain-controlled hearing aids is very real and is closer than we may realize today.
For more information about brain-controlled hearing aids and other exciting advancements in the audiology field, we encourage you to contact our hearing professional today.