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Brain areas involved in synaesthesia: A review


Romke Rouw, Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Roetersstraat 15, 1018WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands (E-mail:


Despite a recent upsurge of research, much remains unknown about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying synaesthesia. By integrating results obtained so far in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies, this contribution sheds light on the role of particular brain regions in synaesthetic experiences. First, in accordance with its sensory nature, it seems that the sensory brain areas corresponding to the type of synaesthetic experience are activated. Synaesthetic colour experiences can activate colour regions in occipito-temporal cortex, but this is not necessarily restricted to V4. Furthermore, sensory and motor brain regions have been obtained that extend beyond the particular type of synaesthesia studied. Second, differences in experimental setup, number and type of synaesthetes tested, and method to delineate regions of interest may help explain inconsistent results obtained in the BOLD-MRI (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent functional MRI) studies. Third, an overview of obtained results shows that a network of brain areas rather than a single brain region underlies synaesthesia. Six brain regions of overlapping results emerge, these regions are in sensory and motor regions as well as ‘higher level’ regions in parietal and frontal lobe. We propose that these regions are related to three different cognitive processes inherently part of synaesthesia; the sensory processes, the (attentional) ‘binding’ processes, and cognitive control processes. Finally, we discuss how these functional and structural brain properties might relate to the development of synaesthesia. In particular, we believe this relationship is better understood by separating the question what underlies the presence of synaesthesia (‘trait’) from what determines particular synaesthetic associations (‘type’).