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A number of cranial nerve disorders are known to result from viral infection or reactivation, including Belltextquoterights palsy, Ramsay Hunt syndrome and herpetic laryngitis. The consequences of these diseases are well established although the patient population at risk is not. Prevalence studies in the general population are an initial step toward defining individuals at risk. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of herpesvirus DNA in cranial nerve ganglia in a random population sample. Qualitative molecular biologic analysis using polymerase chain reaction assay of the trigeminal, geniculate, vestibular, spiral and vagal ganglia was used in 18 randomly selected fresh cadaver heads. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) DNA was detected in 42% of all ganglia surveyed. Varicella zoster virus (VZV) DNA was detected in 44% of all ganglia. The difference in the prevalence rate between viruses was not significant (p = 0.63). At least 1 of the 2 viruses was found in 65% of all ganglia. Both HSV and VZV can commonly be recovered from cranial nerve ganglia. In order to confirm a viral etiology for various cranial nerve disorders, demonstration of a significant difference in prevalence of the viruses in specimens from afflicted individuals will be necessary.