After Blindness, The Adult Brain Can Learn to See Again
A new study uses retinal prosthetics to assess the brain’s ability to process visual information years after blindness occurs.
More than 40 million people worldwide are blind, and many of them reach this condition after many years of slow and progressive retinal degeneration. The development of sophisticated prostheses or new light-responsive elements, aiming to replace the disrupted retinal function and to feed restored visual signals to the brain, has provided new hope. However, very little is known about whether the brain of blind people retains residual capacity to process restored or artificial visual inputs.
The brain’s capability to process visual information after many years of total blindness, by studying patients affected by Retinitis Pigmentosa, a hereditary illness of the retina that gradually leads to complete blindness.
The perceptual and brain responses of a group of patients were assessed before and after the implantation of a prosthetic implant that senses visual signals and transmits them to the brain by stimulating axons of retinal ganglion cells. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found that patients learned to recognize unusual visual stimuli, such as flashes of light, and that this ability correlated with increased brain activity.
However, this change in brain activity, observed at both the thalamic and cortical level, took extensive training over a long period of time to become established: the more the patient practiced, the more their brain responded to visual stimuli, and the better they perceived the visual stimuli using the implant. In other words, the brain needs to learn to see again.