Reading in the dark: Neural correlates and cross-modal plasticity for learning to read entire words without visual experience

Nadine Sigalov, Shachar Maidenbaum, Amir Amedi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations

Abstract

Cognitive neuroscience has long attempted to determine the ways in which cortical selectivity develops, and the impact of nature vs. nurture on it. Congenital blindness (CB) offers a unique opportunity to test this question as the brains of blind individuals develop without visual experience. Here we approach this question through the reading network. Several areas in the visual cortex have been implicated as part of the reading network, and one of the main ones among them is the VWFA, which is selective to the form of letters and words. But what happens in the CB brain? On the one hand, it has been shown that cross-modal plasticity leads to the recruitment of occipital areas, including the VWFA, for linguistic tasks. On the other hand, we have recently demonstrated VWFA activity for letters in contrast to other visual categories when the information is provided via other senses such as touch or audition. Which of these tasks is more dominant? By which mechanism does the CB brain process reading?Using fMRI and visual-to-auditory sensory substitution which transfers the topographical features of the letters we compare reading with semantic and scrambled conditions in a group of CB.We found activation in early auditory and visual cortices during the early processing phase (letter), while the later phase (word) showed VWFA and bilateral dorsal-intraparietal activations for words. This further supports the notion that many visual regions in general, even early visual areas, also maintain a predilection for task processing even when the modality is variable and in spite of putative lifelong linguistic cross-modal plasticity.Furthermore, we find that the VWFA is recruited preferentially for letter and word form, while it was not recruited, and even exhibited deactivation, for an immediately subsequent semantic task suggesting that despite only short sensory substitution experience orthographic task processing can dominate semantic processing in the VWFA. On a wider scope, this implies that at least in some cases cross-modal plasticity which enables the recruitment of areas for new tasks may be dominated by sensory independent task specific activation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-160
Number of pages12
JournalNeuropsychologia
Volume83
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2016
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Category selectivity
  • Congenital blindness
  • Neural plasticity
  • Reading
  • Sensory substitution

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