Combined structural and functional imaging reveals cortical deactivations in grapheme-color synaesthesia

Front Psychol. 2013 Oct 30;4:755. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00755. eCollection 2013.


Synaesthesia is a heritable condition in which particular stimuli generate specific and consistent sensory percepts or associations in another modality or processing stream. Functional neuroimaging studies have identified potential correlates of these experiences, including, in some but not all cases, the hyperactivation of visuotemporal areas and of parietal areas thought to be involved in perceptual binding. Structural studies have identified a similarly variable spectrum of differences between synaesthetes and controls. However, it remains unclear the extent to which these neural correlates reflect the synaesthetic experience itself or additional phenotypes associated with the condition. Here, we acquired both structural and functional neuroimaging data comparing thirteen grapheme-color synaesthetes with eleven non-synaesthetes. Using voxel-based morphometry and diffusion tensor imaging, we identify a number of clusters of increased volume of gray matter, of white matter or of increased fractional anisotropy in synaesthetes vs. controls. To assess the possible involvement of these areas in the synaesthetic experience, we used nine areas of increased gray matter volume as regions of interest in an fMRI experiment that characterized the contrast in response to stimuli which induced synaesthesia (i.e., letters) vs. those which did not (non-meaningful symbols). Four of these areas showed sensitivity to this contrast in synaesthetes but not controls. Unexpectedly, in two of them, in left lateral occipital cortex and in postcentral gyrus, the letter stimuli produced a strong negative BOLD signal in synaesthetes. An additional whole-brain fMRI analysis identified 14 areas, three of which were driven mainly by a negative BOLD response to letters in synaesthetes. Our findings suggest that cortical deactivations may be involved in the conscious experience of internally generated synaesthetic percepts.

Keywords: DTI; VBM; deactivation; diffusion; fMRI; negative BOLD; structural; synesthesia.