Sensorineural deafness results from damage to the neural receptors of the inner ear (the hair cells, organ of Corti), the nerve pathways to the brain (notably the auditory nerve), or the area of the brain that receives sound information. Deafness of this type is usually permanent. It can be congenital or accompany other birth-related problems such as erythroblastosis fetalis (Rh incompatibility) or anoxia (lack of oxygen during delivery). Before vaccines were available, German measles (rubella) and common measles (rubeola) were leading causes; maternal cytomegalovirus and genital herpes simplex continue to be threats.
Tumors, injury, stroke, toxic substances (e.g., mercury), and certain over-the-counter and prescription drugs (e.g., streptomycin) are additional factors that can affect auditory pathways and the brain and lead to sensorineural deafness. Continued exposure to loud noise, as in certain industries or from loud music (see noise pollution), can result in damage to the inner ear, causing irreversible hearing loss. Presbycusis, or changes in hearing, especially of high frequencies, in adults has long been accepted as inevitable, but study of cultures where the phenomenon does not exist is bringing this into question. The hearing of patients with sensorineural deafness can sometimes be improved if the patient discontinues harmful medications or avoids exposure to loud noise, e.g., by wearing protective earplugs. In some cases, limited hearing has been restored by cochlear implants, tiny devices implanted into the inner ear that translate sound waves into electrical impulses that are then transmitted to the auditory nerve.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.