Depending on where you fall on the arachnophobia scale, spiders and spider webs can be the stuff of nightmares. The creepy, crawly legs, almost alien features and penchant for dropping down on us when we least expect it doesn’t exactly endear spiders to the average human. If, however, we choose to look past the ‘ick factor’, spiders are an absolute marvel.
Spiders spin a protein fiber known as spider silk. The sticky silk is used to build elaborate, often beautiful, nets to capture prey. The silk is also used as nests, cocoons and as a method of suspension and transportation. Most spiders can adjust the thickness and stickiness of their silk based on the intended use. From AskanEntomologist.com:
“Spider silk is really strong stuff. A single strand of spider silk can instantly catch and stop a flying insect tens of thousands of times its weight, without breaking. Scientists are interested in harnessing this property for everyday wear, bulletproof vests, and other protective clothing.”
Scientists often borrow from the brilliance of nature to find solutions to common problems, so it’s no surprise that the extraordinary characteristics of spider silk are being harnessed for practical applications. Remarkably, recent research is studying the use of spider silk as a microphone for hearing aids.
It sounds like a scene out of a superhero movie, but the Binghamton University study led by professor Dr. Ron Miles and graduate student Jian Zhou is very real. For years, Miles researched hearing in small animals without eardrums to see if their alternate hearing processes could be used to improve hearing aid function. Without eardrums, insects like spiders and crickets use hairs on their bodies to hear through vibration. Miles speculates that, in addition to the hairs on the body, spiders may also hear through their webs since spider silk is exceptional at sensing air flow.
Most modern hearing aids work through air conduction of sound. The hearing aid captures sound that is then conducted by air to the eardrum for further processing. Miles and Zhou’s research focused on using the spider silk as a replacement for today’s omnidirectional microphones due to the silk’s extreme air flow sensing abilities which allow for better detection of sound across more frequencies.
Frequencies matter with hearing loss and with hearing loss solutions. Human speech consists of high and low-frequency sounds. Some letter sounds fall in the low-frequency range while other letter sounds fall in the high-frequency range. Hearing loss negatively impacts our ability to capture sound across all frequencies. The practical translation of this means that we lose our ability to hear certain sounds which makes hearing words more challenging.
The goal of the research out of Binghamton University is to improve on one of the most common complaints of hearing aid users: distinguishing speech in environments with a lot of background noise. Spider silk may provide a way to do that in a lighter, more streamlined way.
Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness and the mass-manufacturing potential of using spider silk, or a spider silk substitute, in hearing aids. This research will take many years to complete. In the meantime, there are current hearing aid options with omnidirectional microphones capable of weeding out background noise to provide a better hearing experience for the user. Schedule an appointment with us to discuss the latest technology in hearing aids.