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Keywords:

  • cross-modal learning;
  • spatial localization;
  • functional MRI;
  • blindness;
  • neuroplasticity

Abstract

Cross-modal processing enables the utilization of information received via different sensory organs to facilitate more complicated human actions. We used functional MRI on early-blind individuals to study the neural processes associated with cross auditory-spatial learning. The auditory signals, converted from echoes of ultrasonic signals emitted from a navigation device, were novel to the participants. The subjects were trained repeatedly for 4 weeks in associating the auditory signals with different distances. Subjects' blood-oxygenation-level-dependent responses were captured at baseline and after training using a sound-to-distance judgment task. Whole-brain analyses indicated that the task used in the study involved auditory discrimination as well as spatial localization. The learning process was shown to be mediated by the inferior parietal cortex and the hippocampus, suggesting the integration and binding of auditory features to distances. The right cuneus was found to possibly serve a general rather than a specific role, forming an occipital-enhanced network for cross auditory-spatial learning. This functional network is likely to be unique to those with early blindness, since the normal-vision counterparts shared activities only in the parietal cortex. Hum Brain Mapp, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.