Plasticity in the visual cortex of blind individuals provides a rare window into the mechanisms of cortical specialization. In the absence of visual input, occipital ("visual") brain regions respond to sound and spoken language. Here, we examined the time course and developmental mechanism of this plasticity in blind children. Nineteen blind and 40 sighted children and adolescents (4-17 years old) listened to stories and two auditory control conditions (unfamiliar foreign speech, and music). We find that "visual" cortices of young blind (but not sighted) children respond to sound. Responses to nonlanguage sounds increased between the ages of 4 and 17. By contrast, occipital responses to spoken language were maximal by age 4 and were not related to Braille learning. These findings suggest that occipital plasticity for spoken language is independent of plasticity for Braille and for sound. We conclude that in the absence of visual input, spoken language colonizes the visual system during brain development. Our findings suggest that early in life, human cortex has a remarkably broad computational capacity. The same cortical tissue can take on visual perception and language functions.
Significance statement: Studies of plasticity provide key insights into how experience shapes the human brain. The "visual" cortex of adults who are blind from birth responds to touch, sound, and spoken language. To date, all existing studies have been conducted with adults, so little is known about the developmental trajectory of plasticity. We used fMRI to study the emergence of "visual" cortex responses to sound and spoken language in blind children and adolescents. We find that "visual" cortex responses to sound increase between 4 and 17 years of age. By contrast, responses to spoken language are present by 4 years of age and are not related to Braille-learning. These findings suggest that, early in development, human cortex can take on a strikingly wide range of functions.
Keywords: blindness; cross-modal; development; language; plasticity; visual cortex.
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