"Auditory neuropathy": physiologic and pathologic evidence calls for more diagnostic specificity

Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2003 Jul;67(7):707-28. doi: 10.1016/s0165-5876(03)00103-4.


The term "auditory neuropathy" is being used in a rapidly increasing number of papers in the audiology/otolaryngology literature for a variety of individuals (mostly children) who fulfill the following criteria: (1) understanding of speech worse than predicted from the degree of hearing loss on their behavioral audiograms; (2) recordable otoacoustic emissions and/or cochlear microphonic; together with (3) absent or atypical auditory brain stem responses. Because of the general lack of anatomic foundation for the label "auditory neuropathy" as currently used, we review the anatomy of the auditory pathway, the definition of neuropathy and its demyelinating, axonal, and mixed variants. We submit that the diagnostic term "auditory neuropathy" is anatomically inappropriate unless patients have documented evidence for selective involvement of either the spiral ganglion cells or their axons, or of the 8th nerve as a whole. In view of biologic differences between peripheral nerves and white matter tracts in the brain, the term "auditory neuropathy" is inappropriate for pathologies affecting the central auditory pathway in the brainstem and brain selectively. Published reports of patients with "auditory neuropathy" indicate that they are extremely heterogeneous in underlying medical diagnosis, age, severity, test results, and that only a small number have undergone the detailed investigations that would enable a more precise diagnosis of the locus of their pathologies. The electrophysiology of peripheral neuropathies and the deficits expected with pathologies affecting the hair cells, spiral ganglion cells and their axons (auditory neuropathy sensu stricto), and brain stem relays are reviewed. In order to serve patients adequately, including potential candidates for cochlear implants, and to increase knowledge of auditory pathologies, we make a plea for more comprehensive evaluation of patients who fulfill the currently used audiologic criteria for "auditory neuropathy" in an effort to pinpoint the site of their pathologies. We suggest that the term auditory neuropathy be limited to cases in which the locus of pathology is limited to the spiral ganglion cells, their processes, or the 8th nerve, and that the term neural hearing loss be considered for pathologies that affect all higher levels of the auditory pathway, from the brainstem to the auditory cortex.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Audiology / trends
  • Audiometry
  • Auditory Cortex / pathology
  • Auditory Cortex / physiopathology
  • Auditory Diseases, Central / pathology*
  • Auditory Diseases, Central / physiopathology*
  • Auditory Pathways / pathology*
  • Auditory Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cochlear Nerve / pathology
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Brain Stem
  • Hearing Loss, Sensorineural / pathology*
  • Hearing Loss, Sensorineural / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening
  • Otoacoustic Emissions, Spontaneous
  • Otolaryngology / trends
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Terminology as Topic*