How well does the brain adapt to unusual situations? According to new research from Johns Hopkins University, the brain has an incredible amount of adaptability. The research team evaluated the brain activity of blind children who listened to a variety of sounds. They found that brain areas typically devoted to visual processing were active while blind children were listening. The results offer more evidence for neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself as needed.
The researchers observed 19 blind children (all but one blind since birth) and 40 sighted children, aged 4 to 17. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the children’s brain activity while they listened to stories, music, or speech from an unfamiliar language. During the experiment, some of the sighted children wore blindfolds, but others did not.
For blind children, the left lateral occipital area (a brain region normally involved in visual processing) responded to sounds, exhibiting the strongest response when the children listened to stories they could understand. Sighted children did not have the same brain reaction, suggesting that blind children’s “visual” region plays a role in language processing. Additionally, blind children’s occipital cortex reached adult levels in response to stories by age four. When processing other types of sounds, the occipital cortex continued to develop with age.
“The traditional view is that cortical function is rigidly constrained by evolution. We found in childhood, the human cortex is remarkably flexible … Experience has a much bigger role in shaping the brain than we thought,” stated Marina Bedny, cognitive neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, who conducted the research.
The findings offer a strong indication that the brain can develop and adapt as needed. The results could lead to better therapies for people with brain damage.
This research is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
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