Van Leeuwen, T. M., Petersson, K. M., & Hagoort, P. (2010). Synaesthetic colour in the brain: Beyond colour areas. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of synaesthetes and matched controls. PLoS One,5(8), E12074. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012074.
Background: In synaesthesia, sensations in a particular modality cause additional experiences in a second, unstimulated modality (e.g., letters elicit colour). Understanding how synaesthesia is mediated in the brain can help to understand normal
processes of perceptual awareness and multisensory integration. In several neuroimaging studies, enhanced brain activity for grapheme-colour synaesthesia has been found in ventral-occipital areas that are also involved in real colour processing. Our question was whether the neural correlates of synaesthetically induced colour and real colour experience are truly shared.
Methodology/Principal Findings: First, in a free viewing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, we located main effects of synaesthesia in left superior parietal lobule and in colour related areas. In the left superior parietal lobe, individual differences between synaesthetes (projector-associator distinction) also influenced brain activity, confirming
the importance of the left superior parietal lobe for synaesthesia. Next, we applied a repetition suppression paradigm in fMRI, in which a decrease in the BOLD (blood-oxygenated-level-dependent) response is generally observed for repeated stimuli. We hypothesized that synaesthetically induced colours would lead to a reduction in BOLD response for subsequently presented real colours, if the neural correlates were overlapping. We did find BOLD suppression effects induced by synaesthesia, but not within the colour areas.
Conclusions/Significance: Because synaesthetically induced colours were not able to suppress BOLD effects for real colour, we conclude that the neural correlates of synaesthetic colour experience and real colour experience are not fully shared. We propose that synaesthetic colour experiences are mediated by higher-order visual pathways that lie beyond the scope of classical, ventral-occipital visual areas. Feedback from these areas, in which the left parietal cortex is likely to play an important role, may induce V4 activation and the percept of synaesthetic colour.