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Unraveling synesthesia

Tangled senses may have genetic or chemical roots, or both

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5:56pm, November 22, 2011

A sense-mixing condition in which people taste colors or see smells tends to run in families, and recent studies have homed in on a selection of genes that may contribute to the phenomenon, called synesthesia. Understanding the condition’s genetic basis might reveal why it has perpetuated in humans and help scientists develop cures for degenerative neurological diseases.

Only about 3 percent of the population claim to experience some form of synesthesia, but nearly half of those report having a close family member whose senses become similarly entangled. “We know that synesthesia tends to travel in families,” says experimental psychologist David Brang of the University of California, San Diego who, along with V.S. Ramachandran, discusses synesthesia genetics in an article published online November 22 in PLoS Biology.

But children often exhibit different forms of synesthesia than do their parents. This “complicates the picture and hin

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