Congenitally deaf cats’ visual abilities provide insight into brain’s plasticity

People that are blind or deaf often report that their other sensory abilities are heightened.  Researchers at The University of Western Ontario, led by The Centre for Brain and Mind’s Stephen Lomber, revealed that “plasticity that may occur in the brains of deaf people” might actually lead to brain reorganization that makes certain visual abilities more acute (Science Daily).

Besides humans, cats are the only animals that can be congenitally deaf, or born deaf.

Time magazine's October 25, 2010 edition displayed this blurb on Lomber's research under its "Lab Report."

Thus, UWO’s researchers conducted their study using congenitally deaf cats and “discovered there is a casual link between enhanced visual abilities and reorganization of the part of the brain that usually handles auditory input in congenitally deaf cats” (Science Daily).  Lomber and researchers showed that “only two specific visual abilities are enhanced in the deaf: visual localization in the peripheral field and visual motion detection” (Science Daily).

“The part of the auditory cortex that would normally pick up peripheral sound enhanced peripheral vision, leading the researchers to conclude the function stays the same but switches from auditory to visual.”

Lomber provided the following analogy to explain the significance of the discerned visual enhancement, “If you’re deaf, you would benefit by seeing a car coming far off in your peripheral vision, because you can’t hear that car approaching from the side; the same with being able to more accurately detect how fast something is moving.”

Lomber states, “The brain is very efficient, and doesn’t let unused space go to waste.   The brain wants to compensate for the lost sense with enhancements that are beneficial.”

Lomber intends to conduct additional research to discern whether or not those who once possessed the ability to hear also experience the enhanced visual abilities or whether previous auditory experience prohibits the changes from occurring.

Nature Nueroscience published Lomber’s research in October 2010.

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