Plasticity in the adult visual cortex: implications for the diagnosis of visual field defects and visual rehabilitation

Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 1996 Dec;7(6):53-64. doi: 10.1097/00055735-199612000-00009.


It has recently been shown that, contrary to long-held beliefs, sensory and motor maps are not stable in the adult cerebral cortex. Alteration of input from the periphery results in changes in topography in the cortex, including the primary visual cortex. Mechanisms involved consist mainly of reshaping the receptive field of cortical cells and increasing the sensitivity of deprived cells in the visual cortex. Cortical plasticity allows the brain to adapt to background modifications or to damage of the nervous system. It also underlies learning and attention processes. Cortical changes occurring after focal visual differentiation modify visual perception by filling in visual field defects with information from the area surrounding the scotoma. This modification causes affected subjects to ignore or underestimate their defects. With visual field defects, cortical plasticity also causes distortion in spatial perception. Although the effects of cortical plasticity are prominent in neuro-ophthalmological daily practice, they are usually unrecognized or greatly underestimated. These effects cause delay in recognizing visual field defects, and hence in receiving therapy, while affecting the results of some procedures for testing the visual field. Affected individuals who are unaware of their defects may have increased difficulty in coping with activities in everyday life. Up to now, phenomena related to plasticity in the visual system have been investigated mainly by psychophysicists and neurophysiologists. It is essential to start considering the various effects of cortical reorganization in clinical practice. It is especially important to introduce into clinics the concept of dissociation between actual and perceived defects in the visual field, resulting from the filling-in process, and the need to measure it. This dissociation should also be demonstrated to the affected subjects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Vision Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Vision Disorders / physiopathology
  • Vision Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Visual Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Visual Fields / physiology*