Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA are one of the most important causes of sensorineural hearing loss, especially in the 12S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) gene. We have analyzed the mtDNA 12S rRNA gene in a cohort of 443 families with hearing impairment, and have identified the A1555G mutation in 69 unrelated cases. A1555G is not a fully penetrant change, since only 63% of subjects with this change have developed hearing impairment. In addition, only 22% of the 183 A1555G deaf subjects were treated with aminoglycosides. Two novel nucleotide changes (T1291C and T1243C) were identified. T1243C was found in five deafness cases and one control sample. Mutation T1291C was detected in all maternally related individuals of a pedigree and in none of 95 control samples. Conservation analysis and comparison of the 12S rRNA structure with the 16S rRNA of Escherichia coli showed that the T at nucleotide 1243 and A at nucleotide 1555 are conserved positions. Prediction of RNA secondary structure showed changes in all 12S rRNA variants, the most severe being for T1291C. The reported data confirm the high prevalence of mutation A1555G in deafness cases and the major role of the 12S rRNA gene in hearing. The two novel changes reported here might have different contributions as deafness-related variants. T1291C fulfills the criteria of a disease-causing change. As in the case of mutation A1555G, the underlying phenotype of T1291C is not homogeneous for all family members, providing evidence for the implication of environmental and/or additional genetic factors.