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Say 'Aaah' | Booster Shots

An Earful of Data on Heredity and Deafness

August 07, 2000|Rosie Mestel

A while back, I was convinced that my mom had an interesting genetic condition.

(I'd been researching hearing loss and am one of those journalists who thinks she has every ailment she writes about. This time I unselfishly transferred my concern to my mother.)

The condition in question: Waardenberg syndrome, which is inherited and is characterized by not only hearing loss but also a white tuft of hair at the front of the head as well as blue or different-colored, wide-set eyes.

Mom doesn't hear well; Mom had a white forelock. I called her up to interrogate her.

She told me that the "skunk stripe," as she terms it, didn't appear until her 30s. She reminded me that her eyes are both hazel. Mom thinks her hearing problems have more to do with two events from her childhood: a case of measles and a perforated eardrum from an encounter with a bad boy and a rock.

So I turned my attention to my white cat, Jack. White cats, after all, are more likely to be genetically deaf than cats of other colors.

It's hard to tell if cats are deaf, because their ability to sense vibrations can compensate. But after 10 minutes of wailing, calling Jack's name from across the room and clashing pots and pans, I'm convinced by his appalled reaction that Jack isn't deaf. (Perhaps the dog? She never comes when she's called. . . .)

Turns out that Dalmatians are more likely to be deaf than other breeds. There's even a deaf mouse called Splotch that has a cute, white forelock akin to that associated with Waardenberg. (Not a specific mouse of my acquaintance, but a certain strain of mice.)

What is it about hair color and hearing loss? Dr. Rick Friedman, clinician scientist at L.A.'s House Ear Institute, filled us in.

The origins of deafness in Dalmatians and white cats are different, but in Waardenberg syndrome and our mouse pal Splotch, the cause of the deafness is identical. A particular gene with several important jobs is messed up.

That gene is important: first, for the proper formation of certain pigment-making cells that color hair at the front of our heads, and second, for the proper formation of certain cells in our ears. Call it multi-tasking.

Hey, my goldfish has a white splotch . . .

'Fight or Flight' in a Marital Context

You may have heard that when we get riled up, levels of "stress hormones" in our bloodstream go shooting up.

Back in caveman days, the theory goes, this was useful because a swift, scary encounter with a wild beast would get the stress hormones going. These would prepare our body for fighting or fleeing by, for instance, getting our heart rate up.

Today, though, when stress (from work, traffic, busy lives) lasts for hours, days and weeks, these hormones aren't so good for us.

But be they good or bad, those hormones could be a kind of fuzzy crystal ball on the future of a marriage, scientists at Ohio State University report.

Here's how the team--led by psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser--reached this conclusion:

First, the researchers got 90 newlywed couples to talk about disagreements in their marriages.

Next, after the argument had ended, they steered the couple on a trip down memory lane: how they'd met, what they'd liked about each other, why they decided to marry.

They took samples of the couples' blood several times.

Stress hormones were high during the "discussion" period but usually fell during the second, happy conversation.

But 25% of the time, the levels didn't fall--and sometimes they even went up.

A decade later, the scientists traced the couples--and found that those women (but not men) whose hormone levels rose during the second discussion were twice as likely to have divorced their husbands in the years since the experiment.

Now there's a new use for a premarital blood test.


Booster Shots runs every Monday. If you have a possible item, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., 90012 (

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