Credit: Johns Hopkins University

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.

The results, published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that a young, developing has a striking capacity for functional adaptation.

“The traditional view is that cortical function is rigidly constrained by evolution. We found in childhood, the human cortex is remarkably flexible,” said Johns Hopkins cognitive neuroscientist Marina Bedny, who conducted the research while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And experience has a much bigger role in shaping the brain than we thought.”

Bedny, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, studied 19 blind and 40 sighted children, ages 4 to 17, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology cognitive scientists Hilary Richardson and Rebecca Saxe. All but one of the were blind since birth.

They monitored the children’s brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging while the children listened to stories, music or the sound of someone speaking an unfamiliar language. The blind children’s vision portion of the brain, the left lateral occipital area, responded to spoken language, music and foreign speech—but most strongly to stories they could understand. In sighted children and sighted children wearing blindfolds, that same area of the brain didn’t respond.

The researchers concluded that blind children’s ‘visual’ cortex is involved in understanding language.

Working with individuals who are blind offers cognitive researchers an opportunity to discover…

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