Pathways to seeing music: Enhanced structural connectivity in colored-music synesthesia

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Synesthesia, a condition in which a stimulus in one sensory modality consistently and automatically triggers concurrent percepts in another modality, provides a window into the neural correlates of cross-modal associations. While research on grapheme–color synesthesia has provided evidence for both hyperconnectivity-hyperbinding and disinhibited feedback as potential underlying mechanisms, less research has explored the neuroanatomical basis of other forms of synesthesia. In the current study we investigated the white matter correlates of colored-music synesthesia. As these synesthetes report seeing colors upon hearing musical sounds, we hypothesized that they might show unique patterns of connectivity between visual and auditory association areas. We used diffusion tensor imaging to trace the white matter tracts in temporal and occipital lobe regions in 10 synesthetes and 10 matched non-synesthete controls. Results showed that synesthetes possessed hemispheric patterns of fractional anisotropy, an index of white matter integrity, in the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFOF), a major white matter pathway that connects visual and auditory association areas to frontal regions. Specifically, white matter integrity within the right IFOF was significantly greater in synesthetes than controls. Furthermore, white matter integrity in synesthetes was correlated with scores on audiovisual tests of the Synesthesia Battery, especially in white matter underlying the right fusiform gyrus. Our findings provide the first evidence of a white matter substrate of colored-music synesthesia, and suggest that enhanced white matter connectivity is involved in enhanced cross-modal associations.


▸ We used DTI to trace white matter pathways in synesthetes and matched controls. ▸ Results showed different hemispheric patterns in the IFOF in synesthetes. ▸ FA in right IFOF significantly correlated with scores on the synesthesia battery. ▸ White matter in the IFOF is associated with cross-modal associations.

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