Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Larger hippocampus and superior pathfinding in the blind

From Fortin et al, work that confirms how unnecessary vision is for the construction of spatial concepts:
In the absence of visual input, the question arises as to how complex spatial abilities develop and how the brain adapts to the absence of this modality. We explored navigational skills in both early and late blind individuals and structural differences in the hippocampus, a brain region well known to be involved in spatial processing. Thirty-eight participants were divided into three groups: early blind individuals (n = 12; loss of vision before 5 years of age; mean age 33.8 years), late blind individuals (n = 7; loss of vision after 14 years of age; mean age 39.9 years) and 19 sighted, blindfolded matched controls. Subjects undertook route learning and pointing tasks in a maze and a spatial layout task. Anatomical data was collected by MRI. Remarkably, we not only show that blind individuals possess superior navigational skills than controls on the route learning task, but we also show for the first time a significant volume increase of the hippocampus in blind individuals [F(1,36) = 6.314; P ≤ 0.01; blind: mean = 4237.00 mm3, SE = 107.53; sighted: mean = 3905.74 mm3, SE = 76.27], irrespective of whether their blindness was congenital or acquired. Overall, our results shed new light not only on the construction of spatial concepts and the non-necessity of vision for its proper development, but also on the hippocampal plasticity observed in adult blind individuals who have to navigate in this space.

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