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Interestingly, brain reorganization is not limited to cortical regions.
Indeed, congenitally blind subjects encounter significant volumetric reductions of the whole thalamus, and particularly of the lateral geniculate nuclei.
As a whole, the studies conducted to date in sighted and congenitally blind individuals have provided ample evidence that several "visual" cortical areas develop independently from visual experience and do process information content regardless of the sensory modality through which a particular stimulus is conveyed: a property named supramodality.
At the same time, lack of vision leads to a structural and functional reorganization within "visual" brain areas, a phenomenon known as cross-modal plasticity.
For instance, if volumetric properties of the occipital lobe can predict behavioral accuracies in pitch discrimination (Voss and Zatorre, 2012), or if the recruitment of “visual” cortex during Braille reading is modulated by blindness onset (Burton et al., 2002), correlations between performance and crossmodal recruitment of deafferented cortical areas has also been demonstrated in a variety of other tasks, such as olfactory (Renier et al., 2013), auditory (Ross et al., 2003; Voss et al., 2008; Renier et al., 2010) and tactile (Kupers et al., 2006).
There is now ample evidence that the development of the morphological and functional architecture of the human brain is to a large extent independent from visual experience (Pietrini et al., 2004; Ricciardi and Pietrini, 2011; Ricciardi et al., 2014a,b,c).
So far, several behavioral, structural and functional pieces of evidence have been collected in congenitally, early and late blind populations to characterize the distinct cortical organization on the other hand.
While supramodality and cross-modal plasticity often are thought of as being competing, mutually excluding explanations for the structural and functional organization in the blind brain, they are likely to represent “two sides of the same coin” or, to better underline their mutual interaction, the “yin and yang” of brain development.
Over the past three decades, thanks to technological advances in sensory substitution (Bach-y-Rita et al., 1969) and functional brain imaging (Veraart et al., 1990; Sadato et al., 1996; Büchel et al., 1998), the study of the “human blind brain” presented neuroscientists with the opportunity to characterize the pivotal role of the (lack of) visual experience in forming a representation of the external world and in shaping brain development.
Supramodal processing within the “visual” extrastriate system has been studied in both sighted and congenitally blind individuals.
In particular, research has been conducted on form recognition, motion discrimination, spatial and navigational processing, using visual and non-visual sensory tasks in both congenitally blind and sighted individuals (e.g., Sathian et al., 1997; Zangaladze et al., 1999; Amedi et al., 2001; Hagen et al., 2002; James et al., 2002; Merabet et al., 2004; Pietrini et al., 2004; Cate et al., 2009; Kitada et al., 2009, 2014).
In sharp contrast, no volumetric changes were observed in the superior colliculus (Cecchetti et al., 2016).
Consistently, congenital and early blind individuals, but not sighted controls, show a crossmodal recruitment of the “visual” midbrain (i.e., superior colliculus) during an auditory task (Coullon et al., 2015).
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These anatomical modifications are associated with the cross-modal functional recruitment of “visual” cortical areas during several non-visual perceptual (e.g., Watkins et al., 2013) and cognitive (e.g., Bedny et al., 2015) tasks.