Sensory processing sensitivity and axonal microarchitecture: identifying brain structural characteristics for behavior

Szabolcs David*, Lucy L. Brown, Anneriet M. Heemskerk, Elaine Aron, Alexander Leemans, Arthur Aron

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Previous research using functional MRI identified brain regions associated with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), a proposed normal phenotype trait. To further validate SPS, to characterize it anatomically, and to test the usefulness in psychology of methodologies that assess axonal properties, the present study correlated SPS proxy questionnaire scores (adjusted for neuroticism) with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures. Participants (n = 408) from the Human Connectome Project were studied. Voxelwise analysis showed that mean- and radial diffusivity correlated positively with SPS scores in the right and left subcallosal and anterior–ventral cingulum bundle, and the right forceps minor of the corpus callosum, all frontal cortex areas generally underlying emotion, motivation, and cognition. Further analyses showed correlations throughout medial frontal cortical regions in the right and left ventromedial prefrontal cortex, including the superior longitudinal fasciculus, inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, uncinate, and arcuate fasciculus. Fractional anisotropy was negatively correlated with SPS scores in white matter (WM) of the right premotor/motor/somatosensory/supramarginal gyrus regions. Region of interest (ROI) analysis showed small effect sizes (− 0.165 to 0.148) in WM of the precuneus and inferior frontal gyrus. Other ROI effects were found in the dorsal-, ventral visual pathways and primary auditory cortex. The results reveal that in a large group of participants, axonal microarchitectural differences can be identified with SPS traits that are subtle and in the range of typical behavior. The results suggest that the heightened sensory processing in people who show that SPS may be influenced by the microstructure of WM in specific cortical regions. Although previous fMRI studies had identified most of these areas, the DTI results put a new focus on brain areas related to attention and cognitive flexibility, empathy, emotion, and first levels of sensory processing, as in primary auditory cortex. Psychological trait characterization may benefit from DTI methodology by identifying influential brain systems for traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2769-2785
Number of pages17
JournalBrain Structure and Function
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022


  • Cingulum microstructure
  • Diffusion MRI
  • Diffusion tensor imaging
  • Highly sensitive people
  • Mean diffusivity
  • Sensory processing sensitivity


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