Hearing management

Updated 17 February 2015

Cricket ears inspire new hearing aids

New advances in hearing aids and medical imaging may be possible thanks to a tiny insect from the South American jungle, according to a study released.


New advances in hearing aids and medical imaging may be possible thanks to a tiny insect from the South American jungle, according to a study released.

The South American bush cricket, also called the katydid, has some of the smallest ears of any creature on the planet.

But despite a physical structure that is very different from human ears - and an entirely different evolutionary history - katydid ears function in a remarkably similar way to human ears.

How the ears function

Mammalian ears use a three-part process - the eardrum collects the sound, the middle ear converts it from air-born noise into liquid-born vibrations, and a structure called the cochlea analyses the frequency.

It had been well-known that the crickets had eardrum-like apparatuses on their two forelegs. But scientists were unclear as to how these tympana connected with each other and with the sensory receptors to allow the cricket to actually hear.

In the new study, published in the US journal "Science," researchers reveal the discovery of a microscopic organ that acts as a "middle ear" for the crickets.

The cricket version "relies on a system of mechanical levers, a sort of microscopic see-saw formed by its eardrum that makes the link to the inner ear," the researchers explained in a statement.

"The ears of this bush cricket are teaching us that complex hearing mechanisms can take place in very small ears. As such we are learning how evolution has come up with very small, efficient and sophisticated microphones," said Daniel Robert of University of Bristol in England, one of the study's lead authors.

"We now have to learn how to make one like this," he added.

Insect mechanisms and human technology

James Windmill, from the Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering in the University of Strathclyde, also in England, explained that the insect mechanisms could perhaps be incorporated into a variety of technologies to help humans, "including hearing aids, biomedical imaging systems for hospitals, and ultrasonic non-destructive evaluation to assess the structural integrity of buildings and bridges."

He said he looked forward to "the next stage of this important research, bringing together bioscience and engineering to create the bio-inspired sensors of the future."

(Sapa, November 2012)

Read more:

The anatomy of hearing


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Hearing Expert

Heidi Allan is a qualified audiologist and speech-language therapist with 28 years experience both in South Africa and the Netherlands. I am a member of the American Academy of Audiology, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, the South African Speech-Language Hearing Association and the South African Audiology Association. I have held leadership roles at both provincial and national level in my profession and deliver presentations across the country on aspects of audiology. My areas of particular interest include Central Auditory Processing Disorders (CAPD), hearing aid fitting and rehabilitation, diagnostic audiology and public education.

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