In 1898, E.A. Fay published an analysis of nearly 5000 marriages among deaf individuals in America collected during the 19th century. Each pedigree included three-generation data on marriage partners that included at least one deaf proband, who were ascertained by complete selection. We recently proposed that the intense phenotypic assortative mating among the deaf might have greatly accelerated the normally slow response to relaxed genetic selection against deafness that began in many Western countries with the introduction of sign language and the establishment of residential schools. Simulation studies suggest that this mechanism might have doubled the frequency of the commonest forms of recessive deafness (DFNB1) in this country during the past 200 years. To test this prediction, we collected pedigree data on 311 contemporary marriages among deaf individuals that were comparable to those collected by Fay. Segregation analysis of the resulting data revealed that the estimated proportion of noncomplementary matings that can produce only deaf children has increased by a factor of more than five in the past 100 years. Additional analysis within our sample of contemporary pedigrees showed that there was a statistically significant linear increase in the prevalence of pathologic GJB2 mutations when the data on 441 probands were partitioned into three 20-year birth cohorts (1920 through 1980). These data are consistent with the increase in the frequency of DFNB1 predicted by our previous simulation studies and provide convincing evidence for the important influence that assortative mating can have on the frequency of common genes for deafness.
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