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In auditory-visual synaesthesia, all kinds of sound can induce additional visual experiences. To identify the brain regions mainly involved in this form of synaesthesia, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used during non-linguistic sound perception (chords and pure tones) in synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes. Synaesthetes showed increased activation in the left inferior parietal cortex (IPC), an area involved in multimodal integration, feature binding and attention guidance. No significant group-differences could be detected in area V4, which is known to be related to colour vision and form processing. The results support the idea of the parietal cortex acting as sensory nexus area in auditory-visual synaesthesia, and as a common neural correlate for different types of synaesthesia.
In synesthesia, certain stimuli to one sensory modality lead to sensory perception in another unstimulated modality. In addition to other models, a two-stage model is discussed to explain this phenomenon, which combines two previously formulated hypotheses regarding synesthesia: direct cross-activation and hyperbinding. The direct cross-activation model postulates that direct connections between sensory-specific areas are responsible for co-activation and synesthetic perception. The hyperbinding hypothesis suggests that the inducing stimulus and the synesthetic sensation are coupled by a sensory nexus area, which may be located in the parietal cortex. This latter hypothesis is compatible with the disinhibited feedback model, which suggests unusual feedback from multimodal convergence areas as the cause of synesthesia. In this study, the relevance of these models was tested in a group (n=14) of auditory-visual synesthetes by performing a functional connectivity analysis on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. Different simple and complex sounds were used as stimuli, and functionally defined seed areas in the bilateral auditory cortex (AC) and the left inferior parietal cortex (IPC) were used for the connectivity calculations. We found no differences in the connectivity of the AC and the visual areas between synesthetes and controls. The main finding of the study was stronger connectivity of the left IPC with the left primary auditory and right primary visual cortex in the group of auditory-visual synesthetes. The results support the model of disinhibited feedback as a cause of synesthetic perception but do not suggest direct cross-activation.
It has been suggested that synaesthesia is the result of a hyper-sensitive multimodal binding-mechanism. To address the question whether multi-modal integration is altered in synaesthetes in general, grapheme-colour and auditory-visual synaesthetes were studied using the double-flash illusion. This illusion is induced by a single light flash presented together with multiple beep sounds, which is then perceived as multiple flashes. By varying the separation of auditory and visual stimuli, the hypothesis of a widened temporal window of audio-visual integration in synaesthetes was tested. As hypothesised, the results show differences between synaesthetes and controls concerning multisensory integration, but surprisingly other than expected synaesthetes perceive a reduced number of illusions and have a smaller time-window of audio-visual integration compared to controls. This indicates that they do not have a hyper-sensitive binding mechanism. On the contrary, synaesthetes seem to integrate even less than controls between vision and audition.
There is increasing evidence from case reports that synesthesia is more common in individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC). Further, genes related to synesthesia have also been found to be linked to ASC and, similar to synaesthetes, individuals with ASC show altered brain connectivity and unusual brain activation during sensory processing. However, up to now a systematic investigation of whether synesthesia is more common in ASC patients is missing. The aim of the current pilot study was to test this hypothesis by investigating a group of patients diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) using questionnaires and standard consistency tests in order to classify them as grapheme-color synaesthetes. The results indicate that there are indeed many more grapheme-color synaesthetes among AS patients. This finding is discussed in relation to different theories regarding the development of synesthesia as well as altered sensory processing in autism.