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Keywords:

  • blindness;
  • cross-modal compensation;
  • fMRI;
  • language;
  • neural plasticity

Abstract

Neurophysiological recordings and neuroimaging data in blind and deaf animals and humans suggest that perceptual functions may be organized differently after sensory deprivation. It has been argued that neural plasticity contributes to compensatory performance in blind humans, such as faster speech processing. The present study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map language-related brain activity in congenitally blind adults. Participants listened to sentences, with either an easy or a more difficult syntactic structure, which were either semantically meaningful or meaningless. Results show that blind adults not only activate classical left-hemispheric perisylvian language areas during speech comprehension, as did a group of sighted adults, but that they additionally display an activation in the homologueous right-hemispheric structures and in extrastriate and striate cortex. Both the perisylvian and occipital activity varied as a function of syntactic difficulty and semantic content. The results demonstrate that the cerebral organization of complex cognitive systems such as the language system is significantly shaped by the input available.