Blindness at an early age triggers the brain to make new connections that enhance hearing, smell and touch, as well as memory and language, a new study suggests.
Researchers used MRIs to scan the brains of 12 people who were born blind or lost their sight by age 3.
The scans showed a number of changes in the brains of the people who were blind that weren’t present in scans from people who could still see.
Changes caused by early blindness “may be more widespread than initially thought,” lead author Corinna Bauer, a scientist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, said in a hospital news release.
“We observed significant changes not only in the occipital cortex [where vision is processed], but also areas implicated in memory, language processing and sensory motor functions,” added Bauer.
Learning more about these connections could lead to more effective rehabilitation programs to help blind people, the researchers suggested.
According to senior study author Lotfi Merabet, “Even in the case of being profoundly blind, the brain rewires itself in a manner to use the information at its disposal so that it can interact with the environment in a more effective manner.” Merabet is director of the Laboratory for Visual Neuroplasticity at the Schepens Eye Research Institute at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.
“If the brain can rewire itself — perhaps through training and enhancing the use of other modalities like hearing, and touch and language tasks such as Braille reading — there is tremendous potential for the brain to adapt,” added Merabet.
The study was published online March 22 in the journal PLOS ONE.
The U.S. National Eye Institute has more on blindness.