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An evoked potential (or "evoked response") is an electrical potential recorded from the nervous system of a human or other animal following presentation of a stimulus, as distinct from spontaneous potentials as detected by electroencephalography (EEG) or electromyography (EMG).

Evoked potential amplitudes tend to be low, ranging from less than a microvolt to several microvolts, compared to tens of microvolts for EEG, millivolts for EMG, and often close to a volt for ECG. To resolve these low-amplitude potentials against the background of ongoing EEG, ECG, EMG and other biological signals and ambient noise, signal averaging is usually required. The signal is time-locked to the stimulus and most of the noise occurs randomly, allowing the noise to be averaged out with averaging of repeated responses.

Signals can be recorded from cerebral cortex, brain stem, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. Usually the term "evoked potential" is reserved for responses involving either recording from, or stimulation of, central nervous system structures. Thus evoked compound motor action potentials (CMAP) or sensory nerve action potentials (SNAP) as used in nerve conduction studies (NCS) are generally not thought of as evoked potentials, though they do meet the above definition.

Sensory evoked potentials

Sensory evoked potentials (SEP) are recorded from the central nervous system following stimulation of sense organs (for example, visual evoked potentials elicited by a flashing light or changing pattern on a monitor;auditory evoked potentials by a click or tone stimulus presented through earphones) or by tactile or somatosensory evoked potential (SSEP) elicited by tactile or electrical stimulation of a sensory or mixed nerve in the periphery. They have been widely used in clinical diagnostic medicine since the 1970s, and also in intraoperative neurophysiology monitoring (IONM), also known as surgical neurophysiology.

There are three kinds of evoked potentials in widespread clinical use: auditory evoked potentials, usually recorded from the scalp but originating at brainstem level; visual evoked potentials, and somatosensory evoked potentials, which are elicited by electrical stimulation of peripheral nerve. See below.

Long and Allen  reported the abnormal BAEPs in an alcoholic woman who recovered from Ondine's curse. These investigators hypothesized that their patient's brainstem was poisoned, but not destroyed, by her chronic alcoholism.

Steady-state evoked potential

An evoked potential is the electrical response of the brain to a sensory stimulus. Regan constructed an analogue Fourier series analyzer to record harmonics of the evoked potential to flickering (sinusoidally modulated) light but, rather than integrating the sine and cosine products, fed them to a two-pen recorder via lowpass filters. This allowed him to demonstrate that the brain attained a steady-state regime in which the amplitude and phase of the harmonics (frequency components) of the response were approximately constant over time. By analogy with the steady-state response of a resonant circuit that follows the initial transient response he defined an idealized steady-state evoked potential (SSEP) as a form of response to repetitive sensory stimulation in which the constituent frequency components of the response remain constant with time in both amplitude and phase. Although this definition implies a series of identical temporal waveforms, it is more helpful to define the SSEP in terms of the frequency components that are an alternative description of the time-domain waveform, because different frequency components can have quite different properties For example, the properties of the high-frequency flicker SSEP (whose peak amplitude is near 40–50 Hz) correspond to the properties of the subsequently discovered magnocellular neurons the retina of the macaque monkey, while the properties of the medium-frequency flicker SSEP ( whose amplitude peak is near 15–20 Hz) correspond to the properties of parvocellular neurons Since a SSEP can be completely described in terms of the amplitude and phase of each frequency component it can be quantified more unequivocally than an averaged transient evoked potential.

It is sometimes said that SSEPs are elicited only by stimuli of high repetition frequency, but this is not generally correct. In principle, a sinusoidally modulated stimulus can elicit a SSEP even when its repetition frequency is low. Because of the high-frequency rolloff of the SSEP, high frequency stimulation can produce a near-sinusoidal SSEP waveform , but this is not germane to the definition of a SSEP. By using zoom-FFT to record SSEPs at the theoretical limit of spectral resolution ΔF (where ΔF in Hz is the reciprocal of the recording duration in seconds) Regan and Regan discovered that the amplitude and phase variability of the SSEP can be sufficiently small that the bandwidth of the SSEP’s constituent frequency components can be at the theoretical limit of spectral resolution up to at least a 500 second recording duration (0.002 Hz in this case). Repetitive sensory stimulation elicits a steady-state magnetic brain response that can be analyzed in the same way as the SSEP.

The “simultaneous stimulation” technique

This technique allows several (e.g. four) SSEPs to be recorded simultaneously from any given location on the scalp. Different sites of stimulation or different stimuli can be tagged with slightly different frequencies that are virtually identical to the brain, but easily separated by Fourier series analyzers. For example, when two unpatterned lights are modulated at slightly different frequencies (F1 and F2) and superimposed, multiple nonlinear cross-modulation components of frequency (mF1 ± nF2) are created in the SSEP, where m and n are integers. These components allow nonlinear processing in the brain to be investigated. By frequency-tagging two superimposed gratings, spatial frequency and orientation tuning properties of the brain mechanisms that process spatial form can be isolated and studied. Stimuli of different sensory modalities can also be tagged. For example, a visual stimulus was flickered at Fv Hz and a simultaneously-presented auditory tone was amplitude modulated at Fa Hz. The existence of a (2Fv + 2Fa) component in the evoked magnetic brain response demonstrated an audio-visual convergence area in the human brain, and the distribution of this response over the head allowed this brain area to be localized More recently, frequency tagging has been extended from studies of sensory processing to studies of selective attention and of consciousness.

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The “sweep” technique

The sweep technique is a hybrid frequency domain/time domain technique. A plot of, for example, response amplitude versus the check size of a stimulus checkerboard pattern plot can be obtained in 10 seconds, far faster than when time-domain averaging is used to record an evoked potential for each of several check sizes. In the original demonstration of the technique the sine and cosine products were fed through lowpass filters (as when recording a SSEP ) while viewing a pattern of fine checks whose black and white squares exchanged place six times per second. Then the size of the squares was progressively increased so as to give a plot of evoked potential amplitude versus check size (hence “sweep”). Subsequent authors have implemented the sweep technique by using computer software to increment the spatial frequency of a grating in a series of small steps and to compute a time-domain average for each discrete spatial frequency. A single sweep may be adequate or it may be necessary to average the graphs obtained in several sweeps with the averager triggered by the sweep cycle. Averaging 16 sweeps can improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the graph by a factor of four. The sweep technique has proved useful in measuring rapidly-adapting visual processes and also for recording from babies, where recording duration is necessarily short. Norcia and Tyler have used the technique to document the development of visual acuity and contrast sensitivity through the first years of life. They have emphasized that, in diagnosing abnormal visual development, the more precise the developmental norms, the more sharply can the abnormal be distinguished from the normal, and to that end have documented normal visual development in a large group of infants. For many years the sweep technique has been used in paediatric ophthalmology (electrodiagnosis) clinics Worldwide.

Evoked potential feedback

This technique allows the SSEP to directly control the stimulus that elicits the SSEP without the conscious intervention of the experimental subject. For example, the running average of the SSEP can be arranged to increase the luminance of a checkerboard stimulus if the amplitude of the SSEP falls below some predetermined value, and to decrease luminance if it rises above this value. The amplitude of the SSEP then hovers about this predetermined value. Now the wavelength (colour) of the stimulus is progressively changed. The resulting plot of stimulus luminance versus wavelength is a plot of the spectral sensitivity of the visual system.

Visual evoked potential

Visual evoked potentials (VEPs) are described by O'Shea et al. (2009). They are caused by sensory stimulation of a subject's visual field and are observed using electroencephalography. Commonly used visual stimuli are flashing lights, or checkerboards on a video screen that flicker between black on white to white on black (invert contrast). The resulting waveform includes the C1 and P1 followed by the visual N1.

Visual evoked potentials are very useful in detecting blindness in patients that cannot communicate, such as babies or animals. If repeated stimulation of the visual field causes no changes in EEG potentials, then the subject's brain is probably not receiving any signals from his/her eyes. Other applications include the diagnosis of optic neuritis, which causes the signal to be delayed. Such a delay is also a classic finding in Multiple Sclerosis. Visual evoked potentials are furthermore used in the investigation of basic functions of visual perception. VEPs are also sometimes used to determine if someone is fraudulently alleging blindness.

The term "visual evoked potential" is used interchangeably with "visually evoked potential". It usually refers to responses recorded from the occipital cortex. Sometimes, the term "visual evoked cortical potential" (VECP) is used to distinguish the VEP from retinal or subcortical potentials.

The multifocal VEP is used to record separate responses for visual field locations.

Some specific VEPs are:

  • Sweep visual evoked potential
  • Binocular visual evoked potential
  • Chromatic visual evoked potential
  • Hemi-field visual evoked potential
  • Flash visual evoked potential
  • LED Goggle visual evoked potential
  • Motion visual evoked potential
  • Multifocal visual evoked potential
  • Multi-channel visual evoked potential
  • Multi-frequency visual evoked potential
  • Stereo-elicited visual evoked potential

Auditory evoked potential

Auditory evoked potential can be used to trace the signal generated by a sound through the ascending auditory pathway. The evoked potential is generated in the cochlea, goes through the cochlear nerve, through the cochlear nucleus, superior olivary complex, lateral lemniscus, to the inferior colliculus in the midbrain, on to the medial geniculate body, and finally to the cortex.

Auditory evoked potentials (AEPs) are a subclass of event-related potentials (ERP)s. ERPs are brain responses that are time-locked to some “event”, such as a sensory stimulus, a mental event (such as recognition of a target stimulus), or the omission of a stimulus. For AEPs, the “event” is a sound. AEPs (and ERPs) are very small electrical voltage potentials originating from the brain recorded from the scalp in response to an auditory stimulus, such as different tones, speech sounds, etc.

Somatosensory evoked potential

Somatosensory Evoked Potentials (SSEPs) are used in neuromonitoring to assess the function of a patient's spinal cord during surgery. They are recorded by stimulating peripheral nerves, most commonly the tibial nerve, median nerve or ulnar nerve, typically with an electrical stimulus. The response is then recorded from the patient's scalp.

Because of the low amplitude of the signal once it reaches the patient's scalp and the relatively high amount of electrical noise caused by background EEG, scalp muscle EMG or electrical devices in the room, the signal must be averaged. The use of averaging improves the signal-to-noise ratio. Typically, in the operating room, over 100 and up to 1,000 averages must be used to adequately resolve the evoked potential.

The two most looked at aspects of an SSEP are the amplitude and latency of the peaks. The most predominant peaks have been studied and named in labs. Each peak is given a letter and a number in its name. For example, N20 refers to a negative peak (N) at 20ms. This peak is recorded from the cortex when the median nerve is stimulated. It most likely corresponds to the signal reaching the somatosensory cortex. When used in intraoperative monitoring, the latency and amplitude of the peak relative to the patient's post-intubation baseline is a crucial piece of information. Dramatic increases in latency or decreases in amplitude are indicators of neurological dysfuncion.

During surgery, the large amounts of anesthetic gases used can affect the amplitude and latencies of SSEPs. Any of the halogenated agents or nitrous oxide will increase latencies and decrease amplitudes of responses, sometimes to the point where a response can no longer be detected. For this reason, an anesthetic utilizing less halogenated agent and more intravenous hypnotic and narcotic is typically used.

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Intraoperative monitoring

Somatosensory evoked potentials provide monitoring for the dorsal columns of the spinal cord. Sensory evoked potentials may also be used during surgeries which place brain structures at risk. They are effectively used to determine cortical ischemia during carotid endarterectomy surgeries and for mapping the sensory areas of the brain during brain surgery.

Electrical stimulation of the scalp can produce an electrical current within the brain that activates the motor pathways of the pyramidal tracts. This technique is known as transcranial electrical motor potential (TcMEP) monitoring. This technique effectively evaluates the motor pathways in the central nervous system during surgeries which place these structures at risk. These motor pathways, including the lateral corticospinal tract, are located in the lateral and ventral funiculi of the spinal cord. Since the ventral and dorsal spinal cord have separate blood supply with very limited collateral flow, an anterior cord syndrome (paralysis or paresis with some preserved sensory function) is a possible surgical sequela, so it is important to have monitoring specific to the motor tracts as well as dorsal column monitoring.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation versus electrical stimulation is generally regarded as unsuitable for intraoperative monitoring because it is more sensitive to anesthesia. Electrical stimulation is too painful for clinical use in awake patients. The two modalities are thus complementary, electrical stimulation being the choice for intraoperative monitoring, and magnetic for clinical applications.

Motor evoked potentials

Motor evoked potentials (MEP) are recorded from muscles following direct stimulation of exposed motor cortex, or transcranial stimulation of motor cortex, either magnetic or electrical. Transcranial magnetic MEP (TCmMEP) potentially offer clinical diagnostic applications. Transcranial electrical MEP (TCeMEP) has been in widespread use for several years for intraoperative monitoring of pyramidal tract functional integrity.

During the 1990s there were attempts to monitor "motor evoked potentials", including "neurogenic motor evoked potentials" recorded from peripheral nerves, following direct electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. It has become clear that these "motor" potentials were almost entirely elicited by antidromic stimulation of sensory tracts—even when the recording was from muscles (antidromic sensory tract stimulation triggers myogenic responses through synapses at the root entry level). TCMEP, whether electrical or magnetic, is the most practical way to ensure pure motor responses, since stimulation of sensory cortex cannot result in descending impulses beyond the first synapse (synapses cannot be backfired).


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