Parts of brain can switch functions

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

WASHINGTON - Evidence is mounting that brain regions can take over functions they were not genetically destined to perform, says a new study.

When your brain registers the aroma of your morning coffee or the sound of a honking car, that input gets shuttled to the appropriate brain region for analysis. The coffee aroma goes to the olfactory cortex, while sounds are processed in the auditory cortex.

That division of labour suggests that the brain’s structure follows a predetermined, genetic blueprint, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

But now evidence shows the contrary, says a new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In a landmark 1996 study of people blinded early in life, neuroscientists showed that the visual cortex could participate in a nonvisual function - reading Braille, according to an MIT statement.

Now, a study from MIT neuroscientists shows that in individuals born blind, parts of the visual cortex are recruited for language processing.

The finding suggests that the visual cortex can dramatically change its function - from visual processing to language.

It also appears to overturn the idea that language processing can only occur in highly specialised brain regions that are genetically programmed for language tasks.

“Your brain is not a prepackaged kind of thing… Rather, it’s a self-building toolkit,” says Marina Bedny, an MIT postdoctoral associate in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of the study.

“The building process is profoundly influenced by the experiences you have during your development,” she adds.

Filed under: Science and Technology

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