What It Means to 'Feel the Noise': Hearing, Touch Appear to Be Physically Linked in the Brain

By Powell, Devin | Science News, June 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

What It Means to 'Feel the Noise': Hearing, Touch Appear to Be Physically Linked in the Brain


Powell, Devin, Science News


About a year and a half after her stroke, a 36-year-old professor started to feel sounds. A radio announcer's voice made her tingle. Background noise in a plane felt physically uncomfortable.

Now Tony Ro, a neuroscientist at the City College of the City University of New York, may have figured out the cause of this synesthesia, or overlapping sensation. Sophisticated imaging of the professor's brain revealed that new links had grown between its auditory part, which processes sound, and the somato-sensory region, which handles touch.

"The auditory area of her brain started taking over the somatosensory area," says Ro, who used diffusion tensor imaging, which focuses on the brain's white matter connections, to spot the change.

The connection between sound and touch may run deep in everyone, Ro and colleagues reported May 25. Both hearing and touch rely on nerves set atwitter by vibration. A cell phone set to vibrate can be sensed by the skin of the hand, and the phone's ring tone generates sound waves--vibrations of air--that move the eardrum.

Elizabeth Courtenay Wilson, a neuroscientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has also seen strong connections between areas of the brain that process hearing and touch. She has published papers showing that people with normal hearing were much better at detecting the combination of an extremely weak sound and an extremely weak vibration applied to the skin than at detecting either stimulus on its own. …

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