For years, people who were born without sight were all but forgotten by the education community. Now, we are making strides in trying to understand how they learn so that we can help them.
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Now, it appears that people born without sight use the visual areas of the brain to solve math problems.
A functional MRI study looked at 17 people who were blind since birth and found that the areas of the visual cortex became active when participants were asked to solve algebra problems. This comes from a Johns Hopkins reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"And as the equations get harder and harder, activity in these areas goes up in a blind person," says Marina Bedny, an author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
For sighted people doing the same problem, no visual areas were engaged.
"That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex," Bedny says.
These findings will challenge the idea that brain tissue is intended for one function only.
"To see that this structure can be reused for something very different is very surprising," says Melissa Libertus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. "It shows us how plastic our brain is, how flexible it is."
Earlier research showed that if you don't have the abiltiy to see, other senses can take over, but there have been very few studies into doing something that had nothing to do with the senses.
So they went with algebra.
During the study, both sets of participants were asked to solve algebra equations. "So they would hear something like: 12 minus 3 equals x, and 4 minus 2 equals x," Bedny says. "And they'd have to say whether x had the same value in those two equations."
In both, the two brain areas associated with numbers became active, but only the blind participants had increased activities in the zones reserved for vision.
This is extremely hopeful for the future.
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Drugs or even mental exercises might help a patient "use a different part of your brain to do the same function," Bedny says. "And that would be really exciting."