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“Is Sensory Processing Disorder Inherited?” Collaboration Between the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation and
Baylor College of Medicine

Sarah A. Schoen, PhD, OTR
Assistant Director of Research, SPD Foundation



How many times have you worked with a family and a comment is made, “He’s just like I was as a kid”? Anecdotally, we all know that Sensory Processing Disorder is common amongst families. In fact, Goldsmith and colleagues (2006) suggest in a population based twin study, auditory and tactile over-responsivity both can be inherited to a “moderate degree” with tactile over-responsivity demonstrating somewhat greater heritability. However, to our knowledge, no studies have been conducted evaluating whether SPD is inherited from generation to generation. Thus, the SPD Foundation has teamed up with experts at Baylor College of Medicine to try to answer this question.

The Eagleman laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine has extensive experience in the study of synesthesia, a condition in which normal sensory stimulation triggers unusual sensory responses – for example, a sound may trigger the perception of color. (Cytowic & Eagleman 2009; Eagleman 2009; Eagleman & Goodale 2009). The scientists in Eagleman’s lab propose that SPD has much in common with synesthesia. If this is the case, then both conditions may be different expressions of a single underlying problem of sensory network connectivity. Eagleman’s group’s recent article suggests that synesthesia is heritable (Tomson, et. al. 2011).
Using methodology perfected from their work in synesthesia, the Baylor School of Medicine groups intend to analyze whether or not SPD can be inherited and will also search for the gene(s) that may underlie the SPD subtype, sensory over-responsivity.

Our participation will be to first identify family members across generations that have similar sensory over-responsive symptoms - for example, a child with sensory over-responsivity and a parent or grandparent who also has sensory over-responsivity. This is where we come in! Using the research edition of the Sensory Processing Scales, developed by Miller & Schoen (2012), we will characterize the sensory symptoms of family members who we will refer to the Eagleman laboratory. We will get an “SPD family pedigree” which is a description of observable characteristics or behavioral traits amongst members of a family. It is essentially a ‘family tree of SPD’, designed to help us understand how SPD symptoms are inherited. When a family has at least three or more SPD-affected individuals, and they are willing to participate, they will be included in the genetics portion of the study that requires the collection of DNA from their saliva, which is then subjected to a special form of analysis. This analysis identifies the most probable genetic region responsible for SPD.

Researchers at the Eagleman laboratory hypothesize that SPD will be heavily skewed toward males (which, it found true, would suggest that SPD is an X-linked trait). If SPD looks inherited, there is the possibility (in fact the likelihood) that more than one gene underlies SPD. Regardless, knowledge gained from this study will provide insight into potential causes of SPD and will suggest the next directions for genetic research related to SPD.

We look forward to updating you on the results of this extremely valuable research endeavor. Many thanks to David Eagleman, PhD for assisting with this report and to the Wallace Research Foundation for their very generous support.



1. Cytowic, R.E. & Eagleman, D.M. (2009).
Wednesday is indigo blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

2. Eagleman, D.M.  (2009) The objectification of overlearned sequences: A new view of spatial sequence synesthesia. Cortex, 45, 1266-77

3. Eagleman, D. M. & Goodale, M.A. (2009). Why color synesthesia involves more than color. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Regul. Ed.), 13, 288-92.

4. Goldsmith HH, Van Hulle CA, Arneson CL, Schreiber JE, Gernsbacher MA. (2006) A population-based twin study of parentally reported tactile and auditory defensiveness in young children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychoogy. 34, 393-407.

5. Miller, L.J.  & Schoen, S.A. (2011). Sensory Processing Scales, Developmental Technologies, Inc

6. Tomson, Avidan N, Lee K, Sarma AK, Tushe R, Milewicz DM, Bray M, Leal SM, Eagleman DM. (2011). The genetics of colored sequence synesthesia: Suggeive evidence of linkage to 16q and genetic heterogeneity for the condition. Behavioral Brain Research, 223, 48-52

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