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Hum Brain Mapp. 2004 Dec;23(4):210-28.

Cortical activity to vibrotactile stimulation: an fMRI study in blind and sighted individuals.

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Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri 63110, USA.


Blind individuals show visual cortex activity during Braille reading. We examined whether such cross-modal activations reflect processing somatosensory stimuli independent of language by identifying cortical activity during a one-back vibrotactile matching task. Three groups (sighted, early-onset, and late-onset [>12 years] blind) detected whether paired vibrations (25 and 100 Hz), delivered to the right index finger, differed in frequency. Three successive paired vibrations, followed by a no-stimulation interval, were presented in a long event-related design. A fixed effects average z-score analysis showed increased activity throughout the visuotopic visual cortex, where it was mostly restricted to foveal and parafoveal eccentricities. Early blind showed the most extensive distribution of activity. Late blind exhibited activity mostly in similar regions but with declining response magnitudes with age of blindness onset. Three sighted individuals had suprathreshold activity in V1 but negative responses elsewhere in visual cortex. Mixed effects ANOVA confirmed group distinctions in defined regions (V1, V3, V4v, V7, LOC, and MT). These results suggest cross-modal adaptation to tactile stimulation in visual cortex independent of language processes. All groups showed increased activity in left primary (S1) and bilateral second somatosensory areas, but without response magnitude differences between groups throughout sensorimotor cortex. Early blind showed the greatest spatial extent of S1 activity. Blind participants had more extensive bilateral activity in anterior intraparietal sulcus and supramarginal gyrus. Extensive usage of touch in Braille reading may underlie observed S1 expansions in the reading finger representation. In addition, learned attentiveness to touch may explain similar expansion of parietal tactile attention regions.

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