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Semantic coding in the occipital cortex of early blind individuals

  • Abboud, Sami
  • Engemann, Denis
  • Cohen, Laurent
Publication Date
Feb 13, 2019
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The visual cortex of early blind individuals is reorganized to support cognitive functions distinct from vision. Research suggests that one such prominent function is language. However, it is unknown whether the visual cortex of blind individuals codes for word meaning. We addressed this question by comparing neuronal activity evoked by a semantic decision task, using magnetoencephalography (MEG), between 12 early blind and 14 sighted participants otherwise comparable with regard to gender, age and education. We found that average brain responses to thousands of auditory word stimuli followed similar time courses in blind and sighted participants. However, in blind participants only, we found a sustained enhancement of activity in the visual cortex. Moreover, across the whole brain, we found an effect of semantic category from about 400 ms after word onset. Strikingly, in blind participants, semantic categories were discriminable starting 580 ms after word onset from signal captured by sensors sensitive to the visual cortex. We replicated the analyses in time windows locked to stimulus onset and behavioral response, using both classical hypothesis testing and machine learning for single-trial classification. Semantic decisions were well classified in all participants (AUC ~ 0.60), but generalization capacity across participants was found reduced in the blind group due to a larger variability of discriminative patterns. In conclusion, our findings suggest that brain plasticity reorganizes the semantic system of blind individuals, and extends semantic computation into the visual cortex.

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