BackgroundSensorineural hearing loss in beta-thalassemia is common and it is generally associated with iron chelation therapy. However, data are scarce, especially on adult populations, and a possible involvement of the central auditory areas has not been investigated yet. We performed a multicenter cross-sectional audiological and single-center 3Tesla brain perfusion MRI study enrolling 77 transfusion-dependent/non transfusion-dependent adult patients and 56 healthy controls. Pure tone audiometry, demographics, clinical/laboratory and cognitive functioning data were recorded.
ResultsHalf of patients (52%) presented with high-frequency hearing deficit, with overt hypoacusia (Pure Tone Average (PTA) > 25 dB) in 35%, irrespective of iron chelation or clinical phenotype. Bilateral voxel clusters of significant relative hypoperfusion were found in the auditory cortex of beta-thalassemia patients, regardless of clinical phenotype. In controls and transfusion-dependent (but not in non-transfusion-dependent) patients, the relative auditory cortex perfusion values increased linearly with age (p < 0.04). Relative auditory cortex perfusion values showed a significant U-shaped correlation with PTA values among hearing loss patients, and a linear correlation with the full scale intelligence quotient (right side p = 0.01, left side p = 0.02) with its domain related to communication skills (right side p = 0.04, left side p = 0.07) in controls but not in beta-thalassemia patients. Audiometric test results did not correlate to cognitive test scores in any subgroup.
ConclusionsIn conclusion, primary auditory cortex perfusion changes are a metabolic hallmark of adult beta-thalassemia, thus suggesting complex remodeling of the hearing function, that occurs regardless of chelation therapy and before clinically manifest hearing loss. The cognitive impact of perfusion changes is intriguing but requires further investigations.