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Neuron. 2012 Nov 8;76(3):640-52. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.08.026.

Reading with sounds: sensory substitution selectively activates the visual word form area in the blind.

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Department of Medical Neurobiology, The Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada, Faculty of Medicine, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91220, Israel.


Using a visual-to-auditory sensory-substitution algorithm, congenitally fully blind adults were taught to read and recognize complex images using "soundscapes"--sounds topographically representing images. fMRI was used to examine key questions regarding the visual word form area (VWFA): its selectivity for letters over other visual categories without visual experience, its feature tolerance for reading in a novel sensory modality, and its plasticity for scripts learned in adulthood. The blind activated the VWFA specifically and selectively during the processing of letter soundscapes relative to both textures and visually complex object categories and relative to mental imagery and semantic-content controls. Further, VWFA recruitment for reading soundscapes emerged after 2 hr of training in a blind adult on a novel script. Therefore, the VWFA shows category selectivity regardless of input sensory modality, visual experience, and long-term familiarity or expertise with the script. The VWFA may perform a flexible task-specific rather than sensory-specific computation, possibly linking letter shapes to phonology.

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