An otoacoustic emission (OAE) is a sound which is generated from within the inner ear. Having been predicted by Thomas Gold in 1948, its existence was first demonstrated experimentally by David Kemp in 1978 and otoacoustic emissions have since been shown to arise through a number of different cellular and mechanical causes within the inner ear. Studies have shown that OAEs disappear after the inner ear has been damaged, so OAEs are often used in the laboratory and the clinic as a measure of inner ear health.
It has been found that distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAE’s) have provided the most information for detecting mild hearing loss in high frequencies when compared to transient evoked otoacoustic emissions (TEOAE). This is an indication that DPOAE’s can help with detecting an early onset of noise-induced hearing loss. A study measuring audiometric thresholds and DPOAEs among individuals in the military showed that there was a decrease in DPOAEs after noise exposure, but did not show a shift in audiometric threshold. This supports OAEs as predicting early signs of noise damage.
OAEs are considered to be related to the amplification function of the cochlea. In the absence of external stimulation, the activity of the cochlear amplifier increases, leading to the production of sound. Several lines of evidence suggest that, in mammals, outer hair cells are the elements that enhance cochlear sensitivity and frequency selectivity and hence act as the energy sources for amplification. One theory is that they act to increase the discriminability of signal variations in continuous noise by lowering the masking effect of its cochlear amplification.
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Otoacoustic emissions are clinically important because they are the basis of a simple, non-invasive test for hearing defects in newborn babies and in children who are too young to cooperate in conventional hearing tests. Many western countries now have national programmes for the universal hearing screening of newborn babies. Periodic early childhood hearing screenings program are also utilizing OAE technology. One excellent example has been demonstrated by the Early Childhood Hearing Outreach Initiative at the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management (NCHAM) at Utah State University, which has helped hundreds of Early Head Start programs across the United States implement OAE screening and follow-up practices in those early childhood educational settings. The primary screening tool is a test for the presence of a click-evoked OAE. Otoacoustic emissions also assist in differential diagnosis of cochlear and higher level hearing losses (e.g., auditory neuropathy).
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