28 February 2012 The spatiotopic 'visual' cortex of the blind
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Visual cortex activity in the blind has been shown in sensory tasks. Can it be activated in memory tasks? If so, are inherent features of its organization meaningfully employed? Our recent results in short-term blindfolded subjects imply that human primary visual cortex (V1) may operate as a modality-independent 'sketchpad' for working memory (Likova, 2010a). Interestingly, the spread of the V1 activation approximately corresponded to the spatial extent of the images in terms of their angle of projection to the subject. We now raise the questions of whether under long-term visual deprivation V1 is also employed in non-visual memory task, in particular in congenitally blind individuals, who have never had visual stimulation to guide the development of the visual area organization, and whether such spatial organization is still valid for the same paradigm that was used in blindfolded individuals. The outcome has implications for an emerging reconceptualization of the principles of brain architecture and its reorganization under sensory deprivation. Methods: We used a novel fMRI drawing paradigm in congenitally and late-onset blind, compared with sighted and blindfolded subjects in three conditions of 20s duration, separated by 20s rest-intervals, (i) Tactile Exploration: raised-line images explored and memorized; (ii) Tactile Memory Drawing: drawing the explored image from memory; (iii) Scribble: mindless drawing movements with no memory component. Results and Conclusions: V1 was strongly activated for Tactile Memory Drawing and Tactile Exploration in these totally blind subjects. Remarkably, after training, even in the memory task, the mapping of V1 activation largely corresponded to the angular projection of the tactile stimuli relative to the ego-center (i.e., the effective visual angle at the head); beyond this projective boundary, peripheral V1 signals were dramatically reduced or even suppressed. The matching extent of the activation in the congenitally blind rules out vision-based explanatory mechanisms, and supports the more radical idea of V1 as a modality-independent 'projection screen' or a 'sketchpad', whose mapping scales to the projective dimensions of objects explored in the peri-personal space.
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Lora Likova, "The spatiotopic 'visual' cortex of the blind", Proc. SPIE 8291, Human Vision and Electronic Imaging XVII, 82910L (28 February 2012); doi: 10.1117/12.912257; https://doi.org/10.1117/12.912257

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