Carnegie Mellon University
May 15, 2019

Brain-Controlled Hearing Aids Could Cut through Crowd Noise

By Lydia Denworth, Scientific American

CMNI director Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham was quoted in a recent Scientific American article about a new brain-controlled hearing aid prototype that could help solve the age-old "cocktail party problem," which prevents individuals with hearing loss from being able to focus on one voice in a crowd: 

"At a crowded party or a noisy restaurant, most of us do something that is remarkable. Out of all the voices surrounding us, our brains pick out the one we want to hear and focus on what that person has to say. People with hearing loss are not so fortunate. Noisy situations are especially difficult for them and hearing aids and cochlear implants do not help much. Such technology generally either amplifies all voices or mushes them together so they are indistinguishable.

The question of how the brain manages the trick of hearing in noise is known as the 'cocktail party problem.' It is a puzzle that has bedeviled auditory scientists for decades and limited the solutions they have to offer. But researchers have just taken a major step forward toward helping people hear in noise. In a paper published on May 15 in Science Advances, engineers from Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute revealed an experimental technology that could lead to a brain-controlled hearing aid. Their proof-of-concept device uses artificial intelligence to separate voices and compare them with a listener’s brainwaves to identify and amplify the speaker to whom that listener is paying closest attention.

Nima Mesgarani of Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, the senior author on the paper, has been working on aspects of the same problem since 2012 when he first discovered it was possible to figure out which voice a listener was focused on by monitoring brainwaves.

In 2017, he developed technology that could pull one voice from many, but only if the system was trained to recognize that particular speaker—a severe limitation in real-world communication. Now Mesgarani and his colleagues have achieved a significant step forward by using brainwaves to decode whom you are listening to and then separating the interlocutor’s voice without the need for training. 'To remove that barrier,' he says, 'is a pretty big breakthrough.'

'It’s a beautiful piece of work,' says auditory neuroscientist Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University, who was not involved in the research. Auditory neuroscientist Andrew Oxenham of the University of Minnesota, who has studied the cocktail party problem for years, says, 'This brings the whole field closer to a practical application, but it’s not there yet.'

Read more