Functional Preference for Object Sounds and Voices in the Brain of Early Blind and Sighted Individuals

J Cogn Neurosci. 2018 Jan;30(1):86-106. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01186. Epub 2017 Sep 11.


Sounds activate occipital regions in early blind individuals. However, how different sound categories map onto specific regions of the occipital cortex remains a matter of debate. We used fMRI to characterize brain responses of early blind and sighted individuals to familiar object sounds, human voices, and their respective low-level control sounds. In addition, sighted participants were tested while viewing pictures of faces, objects, and phase-scrambled control pictures. In both early blind and sighted, a double dissociation was evidenced in bilateral auditory cortices between responses to voices and object sounds: Voices elicited categorical responses in bilateral superior temporal sulci, whereas object sounds elicited categorical responses along the lateral fissure bilaterally, including the primary auditory cortex and planum temporale. Outside the auditory regions, object sounds also elicited categorical responses in the left lateral and in the ventral occipitotemporal regions in both groups. These regions also showed response preference for images of objects in the sighted group, thus suggesting a functional specialization that is independent of sensory input and visual experience. Between-group comparisons revealed that, only in the blind group, categorical responses to object sounds extended more posteriorly into the occipital cortex. Functional connectivity analyses evidenced a selective increase in the functional coupling between these reorganized regions and regions of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex in the blind group. In contrast, vocal sounds did not elicit preferential responses in the occipital cortex in either group. Nevertheless, enhanced voice-selective connectivity between the left temporal voice area and the right fusiform gyrus were found in the blind group. Altogether, these findings suggest that, in the absence of developmental vision, separate auditory categories are not equipotent in driving selective auditory recruitment of occipitotemporal regions and highlight the presence of domain-selective constraints on the expression of cross-modal plasticity.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Blindness / diagnostic imaging
  • Blindness / physiopathology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult