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"Blindsided" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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People who have been blind from birth make use of the visual parts of their brain to refine their sensation of sound and touch, according to an international team of researchers led by neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Job Re-assignment -- in the Brain.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

When a person has lost sight from birth, the visual part of the brain doesn't get to just chill -- it gets new duties. In a study led by Georgetown University Medical Center, we begin to see why the blind have heightened senses of touch and hearing.

Scientists gave blind and sighted participants a series of tests involving sound and touch. Since sight wasn't tested, you might think that everyone was on a level playing field -- but never underestimate the power of the brain.

Using an fMRI, the researchers saw which parts of the brain lit up with activity as participants processed what they heard and felt. The visual cortex in the brains of the blind participants became strongly activated. Sighted volunteers didn't use the visual part much at all.

This seems to show that, in the blind, instead of the visual cortex analyzing what their eyes see, it analyzes what they hear and feel. Add that analysis to the usual auditory and tactile processing from the brain and the result is a more acute sense of touch and hearing.

The scientists are working to harness these super-senses to help blind people better navigate their world. One idea being tested is goggles that turn visual cues into auditory ones.

The brain -- in challenging times, smart enough to re-invent itself.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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