Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Younger brains are easier to rewire -- brain regions can switch functions

Date:
October 22, 2010
Source:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Summary:
Neuroscientists offer evidence that it is easier to rewire the brain early in life. The researchers found that a small part of the brain's visual cortex that processes motion became reorganized only in the brains of subjects who had been born blind, not those who became blind later in life.

Scientists offer evidence that it is easier to rewire the brain early in life. Researchers found that a small part of the brain's visual cortex that processes motion became reorganized only in the brains of subjects who had been born blind, not those who became blind later in life.
Credit: iStockphoto/Vasiliy Yakobchuk

A new paper from MIT neuroscientists, in collaboration with Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, offers evidence that it is easier to rewire the brain early in life. The researchers found that a small part of the brain's visual cortex that processes motion became reorganized only in the brains of subjects who had been born blind, not those who became blind later in life.

The new findings, described in the Oct. 14 issue of the journal Current Biology, shed light on how the brain wires itself during the first few years of life, and could help scientists understand how to optimize the brain's ability to be rewired later in life. That could become increasingly important as medical advances make it possible for congenitally blind people to have their sight restored, said MIT postdoctoral associate Marina Bedny, lead author of the paper.

In the 1950s and '60s, scientists began to think that certain brain functions develop normally only if an individual is exposed to relevant information, such as language or visual information, within a specific time period early in life. After that, they theorized, the brain loses the ability to change in response to new input.

Animal studies supported this theory. For example, cats blindfolded during the first months of life are unable to see normally after the blindfolds are removed. Similar periods of blindfolding in adulthood have no effect on vision.

However, there have been indications in recent years that there is more wiggle room than previously thought, said Bedny, who works in the laboratory of MIT assistant professor Rebecca Saxe, also an author of the Current Biology paper. Many neuroscientists now support the idea of a period early in life after which it is difficult, but not impossible, to rewire the brain.

Bedny, Saxe and their colleagues wanted to determine if a part of the brain known as the middle temporal complex (MT/MST) can be rewired at any time or only early in life. They chose to study MT/MST in part because it is one of the most studied visual areas. In sighted people, the MT region is specialized for motion vision.

In the few rare cases where patients have lost MT function in both hemispheres of the brain, they were unable to sense motion in a visual scene. For example, if someone poured water into a glass, they would see only a standing, frozen stream of water.

Previous studies have shown that in blind people, MT is taken over by sound processing, but those studies didn't distinguish between people who became blind early and late in life.

In the new MIT study, the researchers studied three groups of subjects -- sighted, congenitally blind, and those who became blind later in life (age nine or older). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they tested whether MT in these subjects responded to moving sounds -- for example, approaching footsteps.

The results were clear, said Bedny. MT reacted to moving sounds in congenitally blind people, but not in sighted people or people who became blind at a later age.

This suggests that in late-blind individuals, the visual input they received in early years allowed the MT complex to develop its typical visual function, and it couldn't be remade to process sound after the person lost sight. Congenitally blind people never received any visual input, so the region was taken over by auditory input after birth.

"We need to think of early life as a window of opportunity to shape how the brain works," said Bedny. "That's not to say that later experience can't alter things, but it's easier to get organized early on."

Bedny believes that by better understanding how the brain is wired early in life, scientists may be able to learn how to rewire it later in life. There are now very few cases of sight restoration, but if it becomes more common, scientists will need to figure out how to retrain the patient's brain so it can process the new visual input.

"The unresolved question is whether the brain can relearn, and how that learning differs in an adult brain versus a child's brain," said Bedny.

Bedny hopes to study the behavioral consequences of the MT switch in future studies. Those would include whether blind people have an advantage over sighted people in auditory motion processing, and if they have a disadvantage if sight is restored.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Bedny, M., Konkle, T., Pelphrey, K., Saxe, R., Pascual-Leone. Sensitive period for a multi-modal response in human MT/MST. Current Biology, 14 October, 2010 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.09.044

Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Younger brains are easier to rewire -- brain regions can switch functions." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 October 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101021124922.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2010, October 22). Younger brains are easier to rewire -- brain regions can switch functions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101021124922.htm
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Younger brains are easier to rewire -- brain regions can switch functions." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101021124922.htm (accessed August 21, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Do More Wedding Guests Make A Happier Marriage?

Do More Wedding Guests Make A Happier Marriage?

Newsy (Aug. 20, 2014) A new study found couples who had at least 150 guests at their weddings were more likely to report being happy in their marriages. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Charter Schools Alter Post-Katrina Landscape

Charter Schools Alter Post-Katrina Landscape

AP (Aug. 20, 2014) Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans. The state of Louisiana took over most of the city's public schools after the killer storm in 2005. (Aug. 20) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

AP (Aug. 19, 2014) Four Texas high school football programs are trying out an experimental system designed to diagnose concussions on the field. The technology is in response to growing concern over head trauma in America's most watched sport. (Aug. 19) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Kids' Drawings At Age 4 Linked To Intelligence At Age 14

Kids' Drawings At Age 4 Linked To Intelligence At Age 14

Newsy (Aug. 19, 2014) A study by King's College London says there's a link between how well kids draw at age 4 and how intelligent they are later in life. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins