Evoked Potential Studies

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Evoked Potential Studies



Evoked potential studies are a group of tests of the nervous system that measure electrical signals along the nerve pathways.


Nerves convey information to the body by sending electrical signals down the length of the nerve. These signals can be recorded by wires placed over the nerves on the surface of the skin, in a procedure called an evoked potential (EP) study. The person conducting the test evokes the patient's neural activity by visual or auditory stimulation or using a mild electrical shock. This causes changes in the electrical potential in the nerves. Analysis of the signals can provide information about the condition of nerve pathways, especially those in the brain and spinal cord. They can indicate the presence of disease or degeneration, and can help determine the location of nerve lesions.
There are three major types of EP studies used regularly:
  • Visual evoked potentials are used to diagnose visual losses due to optic nerve damage, especially from multiple sclerosis. They are also useful to diagnose "hysterical blindness," in which loss of vision is not due to any nerve damage.
  • Auditory evoked potentials are used to diagnose hearing losses. They can distinguish damage to the acoustic nerve (which carries signals from the ear to the brain stem) from damage to the auditory pathways within the brainstem. Most auditory EPs record activity from the brainstem, and are therefore called "brainstem auditory evoked potentials." Disorders diagnosed with auditory EPs include acoustic neuroma (tumors of the inner ear) and multiple sclerosis (chronic disease in which nerves lose patches of their outer covering). They may also be used to assess high frequency hearing ability, to determine brain death, and to monitor brainstem function during surgery
  • Somatosensory evoked potentials record transmission of nerve impulses from the limbs to the brain, and can be used to diagnose nerve damage or degeneration within the spinal cord or nerve roots from multiple sclerosis, trauma, or other degenerative disease. Somatosensory EPs can be used to distinguish central versus peripheral nerve disease, when combined with results from a nerve conduction velocity test, which measures nerve function in the extremities.


Evoked potential studies are painless, noninvasive, and without any significant risk. Somatosensory EP tests involve very mild electric shocks, usually felt as a tingling.


The person performing the test locates and marks specific spots on the patient's head for placement of electrodes. These spots are cleaned, and an adhesive conducting paste is applied. Cup electrodes are attached. For somatosensory EP, spots on the arm or leg are also marked and cleaned; electrodes may be taped in place. The patient sits or reclines in a chair throughout the tests.
For a visual EP, the patient focuses on a TV screen which displays a checkerboard pattern. The eye not being tested is covered with a patch. For children or others whose attention may wander, goggles are used which show the pattern to one eye at a time. Each eye is usually tested twice, and the entire procedure takes approximately 30-45 minutes.
For auditory EP, headphones are used to deliver a series of clicks to one ear at a time. A masking or static sound is played into the other ear. Each ear is usually tested twice, and the entire procedure takes approximately 30-45 minutes.
For somatosensory EP, mild electrical shocks are delivered to the arm or leg. This may cause some twitching and tingling. The stimulus lasts for about two minutes at a time, and the entire procedure takes approximately 30 minutes.
After the tests, the electrodes are removed with acetone and the scalp is cleaned.


Hair must be clean, dry, and free of any braids, pins, or jewelry. The patient should shampoo before the test, and must not use any hair spray, gel, or other hair care products after shampooing. Clothing should be loose and comfortable. The patient may eat and take some medications as usual before the test, although sedative medications should be avoided on the day of the test, if possible. It is best to check with the physician supervising the test for specific instructions.


This test is painless and has no residual effects. The patient may return to work or other activities immediately afterward.

Normal results

EP test results are displayed as jagged electrical tracings (wave forms), which have characteristic shapes, heights, and lengths, indicating the speed and intensity of signal transmission. Results are read by someone trained in evoked potential studies.

Abnormal results

Changes in the electrical tracings may indicate damage to or degeneration of nerve pathways to the brain from the eyes, ears, or limbs. Absence of any activity may mean complete loss of nerve function in that pathway. Other changes may provide evidence of the type and location of nerve damage.



Samuels, Martin, and Seven Feske, editors. Office Practice of Neurology. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1996.

Key terms

Nerve conduction velocity test — A test of the speed of conduction of nerves, performed on the nerves in the arm and leg.
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