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Evoked Potentials Studies

What is an evoked potentials study?

Evoked potentials studies measure electrical activity in the brain in response to stimulation of sight, sound, or touch. Stimuli delivered to the brain through each of these senses evoke minute electrical signals. These signals travel along the nerves and through the spinal cord to specific regions of the brain and are picked up by electrodes, amplified, and displayed for a doctor to interpret.

Evoked potentials studies involve three major tests that measure response to visual, auditory, and electrical stimuli.

  • Visual evoked response (VER) test. This test can diagnose problems with the optic nerves that affect sight. Electrodes are placed along your scalp and the electrical signals are recorded as you watch a checkerboard pattern flash for several minutes on a screen.
  • Brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test. This test can diagnose hearing ability and can point to possible brainstem tumors or multiple sclerosis. Electrodes are placed on your scalp and earlobes and auditory stimuli, such as clicking noises and tones, are delivered to one ear.
  • Somatosensory evoked response (SSER) test. This test can detect problems with the spinal cord as well as numbness and weakness of the extremities. For this test, electrodes are attached to your wrist, the back of your knee, or other locations. A mild electrical stimulus is applied through the electrodes. Electrodes on your scalp then determine the amount of time it takes for the current to travel along the nerves to the brain.

Why might I need an evoked potentials study?

Evoked potential studies may be used to assess hearing or sight, especially in infants and children, to diagnose disorders of the optic nerve, and to detect tumors or other problems affecting the brain and spinal cord. The tests may also be done to assess brain function during a coma.

A disadvantage of these tests is that they detect abnormalities in sensory function, but usually do not lead to a specific diagnosis about what is causing the abnormality. However, the evoked potentials test can sometimes confirm a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

There may be other reasons for your healthcare provider to recommend an evoked potentials test.

What are the risks of an evoked potentials study?

The evoked potential studies are considered safe procedures. The tests can cause a little discomfort. The electrodes only record activity and do not produce any sensation.

There may be risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider prior to the procedure.

Certain factors or conditions may interfere with the results of the test. These include:

  • Severe nearsightedness
  • Presence of earwax or inflammation of the middle ear
  • Severe hearing impairment
  • Muscle spasms in the head or neck

How do I prepare for an evoked potentials study?

Ask your healthcare provider to tell you what you should do before your test. Below is a list of common steps that you may be asked to do:

  • You will sign a consent form that gives your permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if something is not clear.
  • Generally, no prior preparation, such as fasting or sedation, is required.
  • Tell your healthcare provider of all medications (prescribed and over-the-counter) and herbal supplements that you are taking.
  • Wash your hair the night before the test, but do not use conditioner or apply any hairspray or other hair products.
  • Based on your medical condition, your healthcare provider may request other specific preparations.

What happens during an evoked potentials study?

An evoked potentials test may be done on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices. Talk with your healthcare provider about what you will experience during your test.

Generally, the evoked potentials test follows this process:

  • You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, hairpins, eyeglasses, hearing aids, or other metal objects that may interfere with the procedure.
  • If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.
  • You will be asked to relax in a reclining chair or lie on a bed.
  • A paste will be used to attach the electrodes. The electrodes will be positioned depending on which type of evoked potentials test is being performed.

The test will generally proceed as follows.

Visual evoked response:

  • You will be seated a few feet away from a screen.
  • Electrodes will be placed on your scalp over the areas of the brain responsible for interpreting visual stimuli.
  • You will be asked to focus your gaze on the center of the screen.
  • You will then be asked to close one eye at a time while the screen displays a checkerboard pattern. The squares of the checkerboard reverse color once or twice a second.

Brainstem auditory evoked response:

  • You will sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones.
  • Electrodes will be placed on top of your head and on one earlobe and then the other.
  • A clicking sound or another auditory stimulus will be delivered through the earphones to the ear being tested while a "masking" noise will be delivered to the other ear to shield it from the stimulus.

Somatosensory evoked response:

  • Electrodes will be placed on the scalp and at one or more locations on your body, such as the wrist, back of the knee, or the lower back.
  • Small, painless electrical shocks will be delivered through the electrodes placed on the body.
  • For each of the tests, the electrical activity detected by the electrodes on the scalp will be fed into a recorder, which amplifies the signal and charts it so that your doctor can interpret the results.

What happens after an evoked potentials study?

Once the test is complete, the electrodes will be removed and the electrode paste washed off. In some cases, you may need to wash your hair again at home.

Your healthcare provider will inform you as to when to resume any medications you may have stopped taking before the test.

Your healthcare provider may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure