Brain 'rewires' itself to enhance other senses in blind people

March 22, 2017, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
A photo of a participant in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner used in this study. Credit: Boston University Medical School Center for Biomedical Imaging

The brains of those who are born blind make new connections in the absence of visual information, resulting in enhanced, compensatory abilities such as a heightened sense of hearing, smell and touch, as well as cognitive functions (such as memory and language) according to a new study led by Massachusetts Eye and Ear researchers. The report, published online today in PLOS One, describes for the first time the combined structural, functional and anatomical changes in the brain evident in those born with blindness that are not present in normally sighted people.

"Our results demonstrate that the structural and functional neuroplastic changes occurring as a result of early ocular may be more widespread than initially thought," said lead author Corinna M. Bauer, Ph.D., a scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear and an instructor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. "We observed significant changes not only in the occipital cortex (where vision is processed), but also areas implicated in memory, language processing, and sensory motor functions."

The researchers used MRI multimodal brain imaging techniques (specifically, diffusion-based and resting state imaging) to reveal these changes in a group of 12 subjects with early blindness (those born with or who have acquired profound blindness prior to the age of three), and they compared the scans to a group of 16 normally sighted subjects (all subjects were of the same age range). On the scans of those with early blindness, the team observed structural and functional connectivity changes, including evidence of enhanced connections, sending information back and forth between areas of the brain that they did not observe in the normally sighted group.

These connections that appear to be unique in those with profound blindness suggest that the brain "rewires" itself in the absence of to boost other senses. This is possible through the process of neuroplasticity, or the ability of our brains to naturally adapt to our experiences.

The researchers hope that increased understanding of these connections will lead to more effective rehabilitation efforts that will enable blind individuals to better compensate for the absence of visual information.

"Even in the case of being profoundly blind, the brain rewires itself in a manner to use the information at its disposal so that it can interact with the environment in a more effective manner," said senior author Lotfi Merabet, O.D., Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Visual Neuroplasticity at the Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear and an associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. "If the brain can rewire itself - perhaps through training and enhancing the use of other modalities like hearing, and touch and language tasks such as braille reading - there is tremendous potential for the brain to adapt."

Explore further: Study shows auditory cortex of hearing and deaf people are nearly identical

More information: PLOS One, journals.plos.org/plosone/arti … journal.pone.0173064

Related Stories

Study shows auditory cortex of hearing and deaf people are nearly identical

July 17, 2016
The neural architecture in the auditory cortex - the part of the brain that processes sound - of profoundly deaf and hearing people is virtually identical, a new study has found.

Complex learning dismantles barriers in the brain

March 15, 2016
Biology lessons teach us that the brain is divided into separate areas, each of which processes a specific sense. But findings to be published in eLife show we can supercharge it to be more flexible.

After blindness, the adult brain can learn to see again

October 25, 2016
More than 40 million people worldwide are blind, and many of them reach this condition after many years of slow and progressive retinal degeneration. The development of sophisticated prostheses or new light-responsive elements, ...

The amazing adaptability of the brain's vision center

August 19, 2015
By early childhood, the sight regions of a blind person's brain respond to sound, especially spoken language, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist has found.

How does the brain adapt to the restoration of eyesight?

January 19, 2015
Recent scientific advances have meant that eyesight can be partially restored to those who previously would have been blind for life. However, scientists at the University of Montreal and the University of Trento have discovered ...

Scientists map brains of the blind to solve mysteries of human brain specialization

January 23, 2015
Studying the brain activity of blind people, scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are challenging the standard view of how the human brain specializes to perform different kinds of tasks, and shedding new light ...

Recommended for you

New technique helps uncover changes in ALS neurons

June 22, 2018
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered that some neurons affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) display hypo-excitability, using a new method to measure electrical activity in cells, according to a study ...

Broken shuttle may interfere with learning in major brain disorders

June 22, 2018
Unable to carry signals based on sights and sounds to the genes that record memories, a broken shuttle protein may hinder learning in patients with intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism.

Watching stem cells repair spinal cord in real time

June 22, 2018
Monash University researchers have restored movement and regenerated nerves using stem cells in zebra fish where the spinal cord is severely damaged.

Scientists discover fundamental rule of brain plasticity

June 21, 2018
Our brains are famously flexible, or "plastic," because neurons can do new things by forging new or stronger connections with other neurons. But if some connections strengthen, neuroscientists have reasoned, neurons must ...

Waking up is hard to do: Prefrontal cortex implicated in consciousness

June 21, 2018
Philosophers have pondered the nature of consciousness for thousands of years. In the 21st century, the debate over how the brain gives rise to our everyday experience continues to puzzle scientists. To help, researchers ...

Researchers find mechanism behind choosing alcohol over healthy rewards

June 21, 2018
A new study links molecular changes in the brain to behaviours that are central in addiction, such as choosing a drug over alternative rewards. The researchers have developed a method in which rats learn to get an alcohol ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.