The purpose of this study was to investigate the neural networks involved when using an ultrasonic echolocation device, which is a substitution prosthesis for blindness through audition. Using positron emission tomography with fluorodeoxyglucose, regional brain glucose metabolism was measured in the occipital cortex of early blind subjects and blindfolded controls who were trained to use this prosthesis. All subjects were studied under two different activation conditions: (i) during an auditory control task, (ii) using the ultrasonic echolocation device in a spatial distance and direction evaluation task. Results showed that the abnormally high metabolism already observed in early blind occipital cortex at rest [C. Veraart, A.G. De Volder, M.C. Wanet-Defalque, A. Bol, C. Michel, A.M. Goffinet, Glucose utilization in human visual cortex is, respectively elevated and decreased in early versus late blindness, Brain Res. 510 (1990) 115-121.] was also present during the control task and showed a trend to further increase during the use of the ultrasonic echolocation device. This specific difference in occipital cortex activity between the two tasks was not observed in control subjects. The metabolic recruitment of the occipital cortex in early blind subjects using a substitution prosthesis could reflect a concurrent stimulation of functional cross-modal sensory connections. Given the unfamiliarity of the task, it could be interpreted as a prolonged plasticity in the occipital cortex early deprived of visual afferences.
Copyright 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.