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Evidence for both compensatory plastic and disuse atrophy-related neuroanatomical changes in the blind

Patrice Voss, Bruce G. Pike, Robert J. Zatorre
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu030 1224-1240 First published online: 19 March 2014


The behavioural and neurofunctional consequences of blindness are becoming increasingly well established, and it has become evident that the amount of reorganization is directly linked to the behavioural adaptations observed in the blind. However investigations of potential neuroanatomical changes resulting from blindness have yielded conflicting results as to the nature of the observed changes, because apparent loss of occipital tissue is difficult to reconcile with observed functional recruitment. To address this issue we used two complementary brain measures of neuroanatomy, voxel-based morphometry and magnetization transfer imaging, with the latter providing insight into myelin concentration through the magnetization transfer ratio. Both early and late blind, as well as sighted control subjects participated in the study and were tested on a series of auditory and tactile tasks to provide behavioural data that we could relate to neuroanatomy. The behavioural findings show that the early blind outperform the sighted in four of five tasks, whereas the late blind do so for only one. Moreover, correlations between the auditory and tactile performance of early blind individuals seem to indicate that they might benefit from some general-purpose compensatory plasticity mechanisms, as opposed to modality-specific ones. Neuroanatomical findings reveal three key findings: (i) occipital regions in the early blind have higher magnetization transfer ratio and grey matter concentration than in the sighted; (ii) behavioural performance of the blind is strongly predicted by magnetization transfer ratio and grey matter concentration in different occipital regions; and (iii) lower grey matter and white matter concentration was also found in other occipital areas in the early blind compared to the sighted. We thus show a clear dissociation between anatomical changes that are direct result of sensory deprivation and consequent atrophy, and those related to compensatory reorganization and behavioural adaptations. Moreover, the magnetization transfer ratio results also suggest that one mechanism for this reorganization may be related to increased myelination of intracortical neurons, or perhaps of fibres conveying information to and from remote locations.

  • blindness
  • crossmodal plasticity
  • VBM
  • auditory, tactile
  • magnetization transfer imaging
  • Abbreviations
    magnetization transfer ratio
    voxel-based morphometry
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