Adaptive changes in early and late blind: A fMRI study of verb generation to heard nouns

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Literacy for blind people requires learning Braille. Along with others, we have shown that reading Braille activates visual cortex. This includes striate cortex (V1), i.e., banks of calcarine sulcus, and several higher visual areas in lingual, fusiform, cuneus, lateral occipital, inferior temporal, and middle temporal gyri. The spatial extent and magnitude of magnetic resonance (MR) signals in visual cortex is greatest for those who became blind early in life. Individuals who lost sight as adults, and subsequently learned Braille, still exhibited activity in some of the same visual cortex regions, especially V1. These findings suggest these visual cortex regions become adapted to processing tactile information and that this cross-modal neural change might support Braille literacy. Here we tested the alternative hypothesis that these regions directly respond to linguistic aspects of a task. Accordingly, language task performance by blind persons should activate the same visual cortex regions regardless of input modality. Specifically, visual cortex activity in blind people ought to arise during a language task involving heard words. Eight early blind, six late blind, and eight sighted subjects were studied using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during covert generation of verbs to heard nouns. The control task was passive listening to indecipherable sounds (reverse words) matched to the nouns in sound intensity, duration, and spectral content. Functional responses were analyzed at the level of individual subjects using methods based on the general linear model and at the group level, using voxel based ANOVA and t-test analyses. Blind and sighted subjects showed comparable activation of language areas in left inferior frontal, dorsolateral prefrontal, and left posterior superior temporal gyri. The main distinction was bilateral, left dominant activation of the same visual cortex regions previously noted with Braille reading in all blind subjects. The spatial extent and magnitude of responses was greatest on the left in early blind individuals. Responses in the late blind group mostly were confined to V1 and nearby portions of the lingual and fusiform gyri. These results confirm the presence of adaptations in visual cortex of blind people but argue against the notion that this activity during Braille reading represents somatosensory (haptic) processing. Rather, we suggest that these responses can be most parsimoniously explained in terms of linguistic operations. It remains possible that these responses represent adaptations which initially are for processing either sound or touch, but which are later generalized to the other modality during acquisition of Braille reading skills.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3359-3371
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2002


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