A Fitting Future for the Hearing Device


Her is an American sci-fi movie about a man who develops a relationship with his artificially intelligent, in-ear virtual assistant. In a bizarre twist of events, they fall in love. Sound far-fetched? Think again.

The way hearing aids are developing, it seems that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to have a relationship with those devices that have the potential to link to all kinds of apps and even give us super, substantially better than normal hearing. But for now, they’re doing a mighty fine job of restoring hearing, reducing strain on the brain, and bestowing us with Bluetooth interactivity. The big beige banana is passé; most solutions we work with are virtually undetectable.

Here’s how they work

Under normal circumstances where people have no hearing loss, a high degree of ‘teamwork’ occurs between the ears. We call this binaural ability; binaural meaning both ears. When the hearing system is damaged, we lose much of our binaural ability. Many of the new age of hearing aids have binaural beamforming, a function that allows the microphones to work together as a team, supplementing this impaired ability. This means a person is 30% more able to understand speech in background noise with binaural beaming than with hearing aids that don’t have that capability. In fact, several studies have shown that binaural beamforming technology can give wearers an advantage over people with normal hearing, provided their hearing loss is in the mild to moderate range.

Hearing devices have two sides

The brain has two hemispheres that are divided by a thick band of around 250 million nerve fibres (corpus callosum), which is the communication vehicle between the two sides. Generally speaking, the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice-versa.

It’s like that for hearing as well. Where our hearing systems are working normally, around 80 percent of everything we hear goes to the opposite side of the brain. An elaborate feedback system sends the sounds to nerve endings at the opposite ear to give us the ability to focus on what we want to hear and separate out what we don’t.

While conventional directional microphones have significantly improved the signal-to-noise ratio (the balance between sounds you want to hear vs sounds that you don’t) for users, it’s simply not enough, so hearing someone speak during a lot of background noise is still difficult. Fortunately, several manufacturers utilise binaural beamforming technology. In my Melbourne and Brisbane clinics, I only recommend devices with binaural function because of the significantly increased benefits for communication and cognition.

It’s well documented that untreated hearing loss requires increased listening effort, which increases cognitive load, or strain on the brain. There are specific brainwave patterns for listening effort that can be picked up by EEG electrodes on the skull; studies have shown that binaural beamforming devices require less listening effort to understand speech in noisy situations. Studies have also shown that memory recall for conversations in background noise is also better with binaural beamforming devices, largely due to reduced cognitive load.

Hearing loss is the number one modifiable risk factor for dementia largely due to the associated cognitive load and impacts on memory (the hearing centres in the brain occupies interconnected space with the memory centres). Fortunately, unlike dementia, hearing loss is highly treatable thanks to today’s technology.

The future is now

New generation hearing aids are rechargeable, have directional microphones and Bluetooth capability that allows them to link to your smartphone and TV, and they’re barely visible. Some even use artificial intelligence to pick up patterns of speech, and automatically adjust to reduce background noise and focus on the prominent speaker. Another convenient feature in most of today’s devices is that I can be in my Melbourne or Brisbane clinic and fine tune your device remotely, which can reduce the need for in-person appointments when these are not possible.

These innovations require enormous research and development, which is why the latest technology can be more expensive. Some devices fit entirely inside the ear canal. They’re invisible, however there’s a trade off with function and invisibility because they cannot accommodate all the features. However, the time is nigh when they’ll be invisible and embody all the functions, including artificial intelligence which will greet you in the morning, provide the weather forecast, and relay the fastest route through traffic.

Cross wired

A boon for those who suffer complete deafness in one ear while having some hearing in the other is the Cros system. These devices pick up sound from the dead ear and route it over to the good ear, which gives the person the perception that they’re hearing easily through both ears. This also allows them to hear better in background noise, and hear where sounds are coming from.

An Audiologist can catch you if you fall

Some hearing aids have built-in accelerometers (a sensor measuring acceleration forces), which, combined with artificial intelligence can detect when the wearer has a fall. They’re so clever, they can send alert messages to up to three people who are programmed into the system. They receive GPS directions to locate the wearer. Given that falls are Australia’s largest contributor to hospitalised injury cases and a leading cause of deaths, this is a life-saving innovation.

If you’re noticing that you’re leaning in to listen to someone, not hearing entire words, or asking people to repeat a lot, then do book into NeuAudio for a consultation from our independent masters trained Audiologists. Hearing device fitting is non-invasive, easy and can be brain and lifesaving.

Click here to book a consultation in Brisbane or Melbourne.