MAY 01, 2023 10:00 AM PDT

Sonic Mapping: Echolocators Redefine Visual Cortex

WRITTEN BY: Amielle Moreno

Most of us perceive our world in designated brain areas for each sensory modality. Thanks to its unique plasticity, the visual areas of a blind person’s brain are prime real estate ready for development.

Researchers Norman and Thaler of Durham University in the UK examined the special abilities of human echolocators in a new paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience. These are blind individuals with the ability to navigate their world using click sounds made by their mouths, hearing the resulting echoes, and using that information to sense objects and the shape of their environment.

To investigate what sets echolocators apart, the researchers measured the brain activity of sighted controls, blind controls, and echolocators using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During a brain scan, participants heard the clicks and echoes of a space being navigated.

Image Credit Norman & Thaler 2023 J. Neuroscience, via Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY) license any version arising

The image above portrays fMRI brain maps. Blood flow, a measure of cellular activity, is overlaid in color. Echolocators (EE; red) and sighted controls (SC green) were played audio of clicks navigating a route or the same audio scrambled beyond recognition. When the activity in response to the scrambled audio was subtracted from that of the navigated route, the remaining splotches of color reveal differences in brain function.

Interestingly, visual areas of echolocators were engaged by route navigation sounds. The occipital lobe, is located on the back of our head and roughly the bottom fifth of these brain maps. Engaged areas included the primary visual cortex and the occipital place area (OPA). The OPA has recently been identified as an area responsible for providing an internal representation of the boundaries in our environment, like walls or obstacles. It was thought to only interpret visual information.

Remarkably, the OPA of echolocators actively constructs an internal representation of the natural boundaries of a space, even in the absence of visual information. Seems like the OPA is open to any spatial information it can get.

These findings provide valuable insights into the fascinating world of human echolocation and how the brain can harness its inherent flexibility to overcome challenges. By unraveling the mysteries of this extraordinary organ, we gain a deeper understanding of our capabilities and boundless potential.

Sources:   Journal of Neuroscience, Current Biology

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Amielle Moreno earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Emory University and has dedicated her career to science communication, news coverage, and academic writing/editing. She is a published researcher who has branched out to author articles for various science websites. She recently published an original research article detailing her findings on how sensory areas of the brain respond to social sound. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her spinning the latest neuroscience news into comedy gold, hosting her podcast "Miss Behavior Journal Club." This fortnightly humorous podcast features the latest in behavioral research. Her goal in life is to defend and discover scientific truths.
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