The auditory system faithfully represents sufficient details from sound sources such that downstream cognitive processes are capable of acting upon this information effectively even in the face of signal uncertainty, degradation or interference. This robust sound source representation leads to an invariance in perception vital for animals to interact effectively with their environment. Due to unique nonlinearities in the cochlea, sound representations early in the auditory system exhibit a large amount of variability as a function of stimulus intensity. In other words, changes in stimulus intensity, such as for sound sources at differing distances, create a unique challenge for the auditory system to encode sounds invariantly across the intensity dimension. This challenge and some strategies available to sensory systems to eliminate intensity as an encoding variable are discussed, with a special emphasis upon sound encoding.
The hypothesis is tested that an open-canal hearing device, with a microphone in the ear canal, can be designed to provide amplification over a wide bandwidth and without acoustic feedback. In the design under consideration, a transducer consisting of a thin silicone platform with an embedded magnet is placed directly on the tympanic membrane. Sound picked up by a microphone in the ear canal, including sound-localization cues thought to be useful for speech perception in noisy environments, is processed and amplified, and then used to drive a coil near the tympanic-membrane transducer. The perception of sound results from the vibration of the transducer in response the electromagnetic field produced by the coil. Sixteen subjects (ranging from normal-hearing to moderately hearing-impaired) wore this transducer for up to a 10-month period, and were monitored for any adverse reactions. Three key functional characteristics were measured: (1) the maximum equivalent pressure output (MEPO) of the transducer; (2) the feedback gain margin (GM), which describes the maximum allowable gain before feedback occurs; and (3) the tympanic-membrane damping effect (DTM), which describes the change in hearing level due to placement of the transducer on the eardrum. Results indicate that the tympanic-membrane transducer remains in place and is well tolerated. The system can produce sufficient output to reach threshold for those with as much as 60 dBHL of hearing impairment for up to 8 kHz in 86% of the study population, and up to 11.2 kHz in 50% of the population. The feedback gain margin is on average 30 dB except at the ear-canal resonance frequencies of 3 and 9 kHz, where the average was reduced to 12 dB and 23 dB, respectively. The average value of DTM is close to 0 dB everywhere except in the 2–4 kHz range, where it peaks at 8 dB. A new alternative system that uses photonic energy to transmit both the signal and power to a photodiode and micro-actuator on an EarLens platform is also described.
from Hearing Research