Blind people use brain’s visual cortex to help do maths

From New Scientist, by Colin Barras, September 2016:

“It’s actually hard to think of a situation when you might process numbers through any modality other than vision,” says Shipra Kanjlia at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

But blind people can do maths too. To understand how they might compensate for their lack of visual experience, Kanjlia and her colleagues asked 36 volunteers – 17 of whom had been blind at birth – to do simple mental arithmetic inside an fMRI scanner. To level the playing field, the sighted participants wore blindfolds.

We know that a region of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) is particularly active when sighted people process numbers, and brain scans revealed that the same area is similarly active in blind people too.

“It’s really surprising,” says Kanjlia. “It turns out brain activity is remarkably similar, at least in terms of classic number processing.”

Read the whole story. Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1524982113

From the original research paper:

Significance

Human numerical reasoning relies on a cortical network that includes frontal and parietal regions. We asked how the neural basis of numerical reasoning is shaped by experience by comparing congenitally blind and sighted individuals. Participants performed auditory math and language tasks while undergoing fMRI. Both groups activated frontoparietal number regions during the math task, suggesting that some aspects of the neural basis of numerical cognition develop independently of visual experience. However, blind participants additionally recruited early visual cortices that, in sighted populations, perform visual processing. In blindness, these “visual” areas showed sensitivity to mathematical difficulty. These results suggest that experience can radically change the neural basis of numerical thinking. Hence, human cortex has a broad computational capacity early in development.

Abstract

In humans, the ability to reason about mathematical quantities depends on a frontoparietal network that includes the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). How do nature and nurture give rise to the neurobiology of numerical cognition? We asked how visual experience shapes the neural basis of numerical thinking by studying numerical cognition in congenitally blind individuals. Blind (n = 17) and blindfolded sighted (n = 19) participants solved math equations that varied in difficulty (e.g., 27 − 12 = x vs. 7 − 2 = x), and performed a control sentence comprehension task while undergoing fMRI. Whole-cortex analyses revealed that in both blind and sighted participants, the IPS and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices were more active during the math task than the language task, and activity in the IPS increased parametrically with equation difficulty. Thus, the classic frontoparietal number network is preserved in the total absence of visual experience. However, surprisingly, blind but not sighted individuals additionally recruited a subset of early visual areas during symbolic math calculation. The functional profile of these “visual” regions was identical to that of the IPS in blind but not sighted individuals. Furthermore, in blindness, number-responsive visual cortices exhibited increased functional connectivity with prefrontal and IPS regions that process numbers. We conclude that the frontoparietal number network develops independently of visual experience. In blindness, this number network colonizes parts of deafferented visual cortex. These results suggest that human cortex is highly functionally flexible early in life, and point to frontoparietal input as a mechanism of cross-modal plasticity in blindness.

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