In macular degeneration, the most common form of adult blindness, patients progressively lose vision in the center of their visual field, thereby depriving the corresponding part of the visual cortex of input. Previously, researchers discovered that the deprived neurons begin responding to visual input from another spot on the retina — evidence of plasticity in the adult cortex.
Just how such plasticity occurred was unknown, but a new MIT study sheds light on the underlying neural mechanism.
"This study shows us one way that the brain changes when its inputs change. Neurons seem to 'want' to receive input: when their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing," said Nancy Kanwisher of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and senior author of the study appearing in the March 4 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
"Our study shows that the changes we see in neural response in people with MD are probably driven by the lack of input to a population of neurons, not by a change in visual information processing strategy," said Kanwisher, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Macular degeneration affects 1.75 million people in the United States alone. Loss of vision begins in the fovea of the retina — the central area providing high acuity vision that we use for reading and other visually demanding tasks. Patients typically compensate by using an adjacent patch of undamaged retina. This "preferred retinal locus" (PRL) is often below the blind region in the visual field, leading patients to roll their eyes upward to look at someone's face, for example.
The visual cortex has a map of the visual field on the retina, and in macular degeneration the neurons mapping to the fovea no longer receive input. But several labs, including Kanwisher's, previously found that the neurons in the visual cortex that once responded only to input from central vision begin responding to stimuli at the PRL. In other words, the visual map has reorganized.
"We wanted to know if the chronic, prior use of the PRL causes the cortical change that we had observed in the past, according to what we call the use-dependent hypothesis," said first author Daniel D. Dilks, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kanwisher lab. "Or, do the deprived neurons respond to stimulation at any peripheral location, regardless of prior visual behavior, according to the use-independent hypothesis?"
The previous studies could not answer this question because they had only tested patients' PRL. This new study tests both the PRL and another peripheral location, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan two macular degeneration patients who had no central vision, and consequently had a deprived central visual cortex.
Because patients habitually use the PRL like a new fovea, it could be that the deprived cortex might respond preferentially to this location.
But that is not what the researchers found. Instead, the deprived region responded equally to stimuli at both the preferred and nonpreferred locations.
This finding suggests that the long-term change in visual behavior is not driving the brain's remapping. Instead, the brain changes appear to be a relatively passive response to visual deprivation.
"Macular degeneration is a great opportunity to learn more about plasticity in the adult cortex." Kanwisher said. If scientists could one day develop technologies to replace the lost light-sensitive cells in the fovea, patients might be able to recover central vision since the neurons there are still alive and well.
Chris Baker of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition (NIMH) and Eli Peli of the Schepens Eye Research Institute also contributed to this study, which was supported by the NIH, Kirschstein-NRSA, and Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Byrne.
Written by Cathryn Delude, McGovern Institute
Elizabeth Thomson | EurekAlert!
Further reports about: > Brain > Macular Degeneration > Neuroscience > PRL > Retina > adult blindness > brain changes > evidence of plasticity > neural mechanism > neurons > peripheral location > preferred retinal locus > visual cortex > visual deprivation > visual field > visual information processing strategy
Biofilm discovery suggests new way to prevent dangerous infections
23.05.2017 | University of Texas at Austin
Another reason to exercise: Burning bone fat -- a key to better bone health
19.05.2017 | University of North Carolina Health Care
Staphylococcus aureus is a feared pathogen (MRSA, multi-resistant S. aureus) due to frequent resistances against many antibiotics, especially in hospital infections. Researchers at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut have identified immunological processes that prevent a successful immune response directed against the pathogenic agent. The delivery of bacterial proteins with RNA adjuvant or messenger RNA (mRNA) into immune cells allows the re-direction of the immune response towards an active defense against S. aureus. This could be of significant importance for the development of an effective vaccine. PLOS Pathogens has published these research results online on 25 May 2017.
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a bacterium that colonizes by far more than half of the skin and the mucosa of adults, usually without causing infections....
Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.
The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....
An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.
We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...
Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...
An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...
24.05.2017 | Event News
23.05.2017 | Event News
22.05.2017 | Event News
26.05.2017 | Life Sciences
26.05.2017 | Life Sciences
26.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy