Jeffrey A. Marler, Jessica L. Sitcovsky, Carolyn B. Mervis, Doris J. Kistler, Frederic L. Wightman, 2010

Hearing loss is common in school-age individuals with Williams syndrome (WS) and extensive in adults. Prior studies with relatively small sample sizes suggest that hearing loss in WS has an early onset and may be progressive, yet the auditory phenotype and the scope of the hearing loss have not been adequately characterized.

We used standard audiometric tools: Otoscopy, tympanometry, air-conduction (bone conduction when available) behavioral testing, and distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs) to measure hearing sensitivity and outer hair cell function. We tested 81 individuals with WS aged 5.33 to 59.50 years. 63% of the school-age and 92% of the adult participants had mild to moderately-severe hearing loss. The hearing loss in at least 50% was sensorineural. DPOAE testing corroborated behavioral results. Strikingly, 12 of 14 participants with hearing within normal limits bilaterally had 4000-Hz DPOAE input/output (DPOAE IO) functions indicative of outer hair cell damage and impaired cochlear compression.

Our results indicate that hearing loss is very common in WS. Furthermore, individuals with WS who have “normal” hearing as defined by behavioral thresholds may actually have sub-clinical impairments or undetected cochlear pathology. Our findings suggest outer hair cell dysfunction in otherwise normal hearing individuals. The DPOAE IO in this same group revealed growth functions typically seen in groups with noise-induced damage. Given this pattern of findings, individuals with WS may be at increased risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Recommendations regarding audiological testing for individuals with WS and accommodations for these individuals in both academic and nonacademic settings are provided.