“[…] fMRI measures blood flow in the brain to determine which neurons are most active. Since the 1990s the technology has shown, surprisingly, that the visual cortex flares up even in blind people. More puzzlingly, this activity occurs when they were carrying out language tasks.
Rebecca Saxe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the result seemed implausible, because the visual cortex isn’t thought to be useful for language tasks. So to investigate, Saxe’s team invited both sighted adults and those who had been blind since birth to listen to speech while lying inside an fMRI scanner.
The team found that the language processing centres in the brains of all participants behaved almost identically, but the visual cortices of blind participants buzzed with far more activity than those of sighted people.
“This was kind of crazy,” says team member Evelina Fedorenko, also at MIT. “You have a portion of the brain which is there from birth to do something, but apparently it can acquire a new high-level function like language, which involves super complex cognitive processing.” […]
“Although that is amazing, the bottom line of this paper is that the brain can do something even more sensational than turning one sense into another,” he says. “A part of the brain spontaneously transforms just by the fact that one was born without vision. It’s very elegant.””