In 2011, MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe and colleagues reported that in blind adults, brain regions normally dedicated to vision processing instead participate in language tasks such as speech and comprehension. Now, in a study of blind children, Saxe’s lab has found that this transformation occurs very early in life, before the age of 4.
The study, appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that the brains of young children are highly plastic, meaning that regions usually specialized for one task can adapt to new and very different roles. The findings also help to define the extent to which this type of remodeling is possible.
“In some circumstances, patches of cortex appear to take on other roles than the ones that they most typically have,” says Saxe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “One question that arises from that is, ‘What is the range of possible differences between what a cortical region typically does and what it could possibly do?’”