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Study suggests blind people use their visual cortex when doing algebra

A small study found that visual activity in the brain increased when blind people worked algebra problems.

Can brain tissue rewire itself to tackle new functions? That’s the fascinating question raised by a recent neuroscience study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used a functional MRI to compare brain activity in blind and sighted people as they worked algebra problems.

For the study’s 17 blind-since-birth participants, doing algebra activated areas of the brain’s visual cortex, according to NPR, which reported on the study. The harder the equations were, the more visual brain activity was observed. But when 19 sighted people did the same problems, there was no uptick in activity in the visual cortex.

“That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex,” study author Marina Bedny, PhD, told NPR. Ultimately, she says, the study hints that the brain could retrain the visual cortex to do tasks that have nothing to do with vision, which could set the stage for the development of new ways to treat stroke or brain injury patients.

To learn more, read the study or NPR’s coverage of Dr. Bedny’s findings.

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