Scientists Just Found the Secret Cause of Synesthesia in the Brain

Wednesday, 14 March 2018 - 2:17PM
Wednesday, 14 March 2018 - 2:17PM
Scientists Just Found the Secret Cause of Synesthesia in the Brain
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Image credit: Unsplash/YouTube/Outer Places
Have you ever looked at the number four and decided that it must, logically, be a red number? Or heard a person's name and instantly associated them with the color blue before even meeting them?

If so, you might have synesthesia, a condition in which the brain color-codes random stimuli in an arbitrary but consistent fashion. People with synesthesia will often tie various senses together, creating colorful images in their heads spontaneously based solely on otherwise intangible concepts ranging from musical notes to emotions.

As far as mental abnormalities go, synesthesia is pretty cool. There aren't any real downsides (beyond the social stigma of course), and you always have something to talk about at parties.

(If you're unsure whether you have synesthesia, it's possible to take an online test, but this can be easily defeated if you have a decent memory for your choices as all the test does is check whether you'll give the same answer multiple times.)

Because synesthesia is so difficult to pin down, scientists have a hard time figuring out exactly what causes it. The condition seems to appear a lot within the same family, which has led to genetic research that has attempted to explain what's going on in a person's brain.

A new study that involves gene sequencing for study participants who have the condition has come to the conclusion that there is no single synesthesia gene that always means a person will develop the condition. That said, there were six genes that seemed to appear commonly in participants, and the scientists involved that these genes, all of which relate to the development of neuron connections within the brain, may explain the cause of synesthesia.

It's possible that this condition is caused by hyperactivity within the brain's neurons, as the brain gets its signals crossed when attempting to interpret sounds or images, forging connections that shouldn't really be there. Thus far, this seems harmless, but it does open the door to figuring out what's going on.

Previous research into synesthesia has led to similar findings, with some scientists coming to the conclusion that the condition is caused by a person having too many neurons within their brain. Certainly, it's clear that something's going on in there that can't quite be pinned down, and this new research may help us to understand this fascinating mental abnormality.

The challenge now comes from replicating this new study. The scientists involved with the research managed to gain DNA samples from five or six members of families that participated. These groups spanned three generations, and at least one member of each family had to be free from sysnthesiac tendencies. The best way to prove that this study is accurate is to do it again with a different group of participants, and that means starting from scratch and finding a new series of families that are willing to hand their DNA over to medical professionals that are studying a condition with no inherent benefits or ailments.

Here's hoping that eventually, this research can be undertaken and that we can get a better idea of what causes synesthesia.

After all, some of us don't have this condition, but would really like to try it out—learning how to turn synesthesia on and off could potentially be a lot of fun.
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