“Visual” cortex responds to spoken language in blind children

Marina Bedny, Hilary Richardson, Rebecca Saxe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Plasticity in the visual cortex of blind individuals provides a rare window into the mechanisms of cortical specialization. In the absence of visual input, occipital (“visual”) brain regions respond to sound and spoken language. Here, we examined the time course and developmental mechanism of this plasticity in blind children. Nineteen blind and 40 sighted children and adolescents (4–17 years old) listened to stories and two auditory control conditions (unfamiliar foreign speech, and music). We find that “visual” cortices of young blind (but not sighted) children respond to sound. Responses to nonlanguage sounds increased between the ages of 4 and 17. By contrast, occipital responses to spoken language were maximal by age 4 and were not related to Braille learning. These findings suggest that occipital plasticity for spoken language is independent of plasticity for Braille and for sound. We conclude that in the absence of visual input, spoken language colonizes the visual system during brain development. Our findings suggest that early in life, human cortex has a remarkably broad computational capacity. The same cortical tissue can take on visual perception and language functions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11674-11681
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Volume35
Issue number33
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2015

Keywords

  • blindness
  • cross-modal
  • development
  • language
  • plasticity
  • visual cortex

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