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Petra Vetter, Lukasz Bola, Lior Reich, Matthew Bennett, Lars Muckli, Amir Amedi; Decoding sounds in early “visual” cortex of the congenitally blind. Journal of Vision 2021;21(9):2584. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.21.9.2584.
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Complex natural sounds, such as bird singing, people talking or traffic noise, induce decodable fMRI activation patterns in early visual cortex of sighted blindfolded participants (Vetter, Smith & Muckli, 2014, Current Biology). That is, early visual cortex receives non-visual and potentially predictive information from audition. However, it is unclear whether the transfer of auditory information to early visual areas is an epiphenomenon of visual imagery or, alternatively, whether it is driven by mechanisms independent from visual experience. We acquired fMRI activity from 8 congenitally blind participants listening to different natural sounds, and derived boundaries of early visual areas V1, V2, and V3 by overlaying probabilistic retinotopic maps from sighted participants onto the reconstructed brain surfaces of blind participants. Using multi-variate pattern analysis, we decoded natural sounds in early “visual” areas of congenitally blind individuals who lack visual imagery. Thus, visual imagery is not a prerequisite of auditory feedback to early visual cortex. Furthermore, the spatial pattern of sound decoding accuracy in early visual cortex was remarkably similar in blind and sighted individuals, with an increasing decoding accuracy gradient from foveal to peripheral regions. This suggests that the typical organisation by eccentricity of early visual cortex develops for auditory feedback even in the lifelong absence of vision. The same feedback to early visual cortex might support visual perception in the sighted (Vetter, Smith & Muckli, 2014, Curr Biol) and drive the recruitment of this area for non-visual functions in blind individuals (Amedi et al., 2003, Nat Neurosci; Bedny, 2017, TICS).
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