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This Is How the Brain Rewires Itself to Boost Other Senses in Blind People

Mar 23, 2017 11:59 AM EDT
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Children Attend Classes At Rehabilitation Centre For Visually Impaired
A Palestinian blind girl tries to walk alone during a break after a class at Al-Nour, which translates 'we have seen', Rehabilitation Centre for the Visually Impaired, May 7, 2006, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
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Blind people may not be able to see, but many develop impressive ultra-heightened sense of hearing, smell and touch. Maybe not to the extent of the fictional superhero Daredevil, but some can come pretty close.

According to a report from Medical Xpress, it's not a coincidence that visually impaired people can rely on their other impressive senses. Deprived of visual information, the brain is able to make new connections that result in heightening other senses and even cognitive functions.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear, an affiliate of Harvard University, released a report that revealed the structural, functional and anatomical changes that occur in the brains of people born blind.

Using MRI multimodal brain imaging techniques, the team studied 12 participants who were either born blind or acquired blindness before turning three years old. They then compared the results to 16 other subjects with normal sight.

In the previous group, there were structural and functional connectivity changes. Information were traveling between areas of the brain that aren't visible in the normally sighted participants.

"Similar to previous studies, decreases in connectivity were observed which often involved the occipital visual processing areas," lead author Corinna M. Bauer, Ph.D., a scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear and an instructor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, explained in an interview with Gizmodo.

Bauer further revealed that they observed increased connectivity in certain areas among blind people. These areas are those connected with motor, auditory and language processing skills. 

With this study, the team was able to exhibit the neuroplasticity of the brains, also known as its ability to adapt to an individual's experiences. While the team didn't perform tests on their subjects that actually showed enhanced senses of touch, hearing and smell, but they were able to show how the brain achieves these boosted abilities through new connections.

The full study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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