Colour of sound: Man develops rare brain condition synesthesia after stroke

TORONTO – A man being treated at a Toronto hospital is believed to be only the second person in the world known to have developed a rare neurological condition called synesthesia after suffering brain damage.

Nine months after having a stroke, the anonymous patient began experiencing symptoms of synesthesia, in which certain colours evoked specific feelings. Foods were also associated with various colours.

High-pitched brass instruments like those in the theme from James Bond movies elicited euphoria and caused light blue flashes in his peripheral vision.

Neurologist Dr. Tom Schweizer of St. Michael’s Hospital says it appears that when the man’s brain tried to repair the stroke damage, the “wiring” went awry and produced synesthesia.

Most synesthetes are born with the condition and include singer-songwriter Billy Joel, composer Franz Liszt and author Vladimir Nabakov.

Functional MRI tests showed that many different areas of the man’s brain were activated while listening to the James Bond theme compared with healthy control subjects.

“The areas of the brain that lit up when he heard the James Bond theme are completely different from the areas we would expect to see light up when people listen to music,” says Schweizer. “Huge areas on both sides of the brain were activated that were not activated when he listened to other music or other auditory stimuli and were not activated in the control group.”

The case is reported in the journal Neurology.