Reading embossed capital letters: An fMRI study in blind and sighted individuals

H. Burton, D. G. McLaren, R. J. Sinclair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


Reading Braille activates visual cortex in blind people [Burton et al., J Neurophysiol 2002;87: 589-611; Sadato et al., Nature 1996;380:526-528; Sadato et al., Brain 1998;121:1213-1229]. Because learning Braille requires extensive training, we had sighted and blind people read raised block capital letters to determine whether all groups engage visual cortex similarly when reading by touch. Letters were passively rubbed across the right index finger at 30 mm/s using an MR-compatible drum stimulator. Age-matched sighted, early blind (lost sight 0-5 years), and late blind (lost sight >5.5 years) volunteers performed three tasks: stating an identified letter, stating a verb containing an identified letter, and feeling a moving smooth surface. Responses were voiced immediately after the drum stopped moving across the fingertip. All groups showed increased activity in visual areas V1 and V2 during both letter identification tasks. Blind compared to sighted participants showed greater activation increases predominantly in the parafoveal-peripheral portions of visuotopic areas and posterior parts of BA 20 and 37. Sighted participants showed suppressed activity in most of the same areas except for small positive responses bilaterally in V1, left V5/MT+, and bilaterally in BA 37/20. Blind individuals showed suppression of the language areas in the frontal cortex, while sighted individuals showed slight positive responses. Early blind showed a more extensive distribution of activity in superior temporal sulcal multisensory areas. These results show cross-modal reorganization of visual cortex and altered response dynamics in nonvisual areas that plausibly reflect mechanisms for adaptive plasticity in blindness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)325-339
Number of pages15
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2006


  • Blindness
  • Human
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Physiology
  • Visual cortex


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