Background: The cause and pathogenesis of idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss remain unknown. Proposed theories include vascular occlusion, membrane breaks, and viral cochleitis.
Aims: To describe the temporal bone histopathology in 17 ears (aged 45-94 yr) with idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss in our temporal bone collection and to discuss the implications of the histopathologic findings with respect to the pathophysiology of idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
Methods: Standard light microscopy using hematoxylin and eosin-stained sections was used to assess the otologic abnormalities.
Results: Hearing had recovered in two ears and no histologic correlates were found for the hearing loss in both ears. In the remaining 15 ears, the predominant abnormalities were as follows: 1) loss of hair cells and supporting cells of the organ of Corti (with or without atrophy of the tectorial membrane, stria vascularis, spiral limbus, and cochlear neurons) (13 ears); 2) loss of the tectorial membrane, supporting cells, and stria vascularis (1 ear); and 3) loss of cochlear neurons only (1 ear). Evidence of a possible vascular cause for the idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss was observed in only one ear. No membrane breaks were observed in any ear. Only 1 of the 17 temporal bones was acquired acutely during idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss, and this ear did not demonstrate any leukocytic invasion, hypervascularity, or hemorrhage within the labyrinth, as might be expected with a viral cochleitis.
Discussion: The temporal bone findings do not support the concept of membrane breaks, perilymphatic fistulae, or vascular occlusion as common causes for idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss. The finding in our one case acquired acutely during idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss as well as other clinical and experimental observations do not strongly support the theory of viral cochleitis.
Conclusion: We put forth the hypothesis that idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be the result of pathologic activation of cellular stress pathways involving nuclear factor-kappaB within the cochlea.