Critical period for cross-modal plasticity in blind humans: a functional MRI study

Neuroimage. 2002 Jun;16(2):389-400. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2002.1111.


The primary visual cortex (V1) in congenitally blind humans has been shown to be involved in tactile discrimination tasks, indicating that there is a shift in function of this area of cortex, but the age dependency of the reorganization is not fully known. To investigate the reorganized network, we measured the change of regional cerebral blood flow using 3.0 Tesla functional MRI during passive tactile tasks performed by 15 blind and 8 sighted subjects. There was increased activity in the postcentral gyrus to posterior parietal cortex and decreased activity in the secondary somatosensory area in blind compared with sighted subjects during a tactile discrimination task. This suggests that there is a greater demand for shape discrimination processing in blind subjects. Blind subjects, irrespective of the age at onset of blindness, exhibited higher activity in the visual association cortex than did sighted subjects. V1 was activated in blind subjects who lost their sight before 16 years of age, whereas it was suppressed in blind subjects who lost their sight after 16 years of age during a tactile discrimination task. This suggests that the first 16 years of life represent a critical period for a functional shift of V1 from processing visual stimuli to processing tactile stimuli. Because of the age-dependency, V1 is unlikely to be the "entry node" of the cortex for the redirection of tactile signals into visual cortices after blinding. Instead, the visual association cortex may mediate the circuitry by which V1 is activated during tactile stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Blindness / physiopathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Reference Values
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiopathology
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiopathology