Latest discovery about the human brain

One exciting possibility for

From the Editor: The Summer 2010 issue of Future Reflections included a short announcement about a study on brain development in blind and sighted children that was being conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Now, a year and a half later, the study is well underway. In this article Hilary Richardson, a member of the research team, describes the study and discusses some of the preliminary findings.

Right now is an incredibly exciting time to be a developmental neuroscientist. A developmental neuroscientist studies the minds and brains of children in order to understand how we grow and learn and how a baby's mind transforms to that of an adult. By studying young children, scientists can ask questions about how the brain supports learning a language, how and when we learn that other people may hold beliefs that are different from our own, and how we come to understand and make reasonable moral evaluations. Studying how the mind and brain develop will illuminate which mental abilities we are born with and how we are shaped by our experiences.

In the past ten years it has become possible to ask questions such as these by studying children's brain development with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a very safe procedure we can use to take pictures of people's brains. Images that show the brain's anatomy, or shape, appear as still photographs. The brain's function is shown through a functional MRI, or fMRI, as a series of images over time, much like a movie. MRI technology lets us study the brain as it does the things we otherwise take for granted in our everyday lives, such as processing language, perceiving social interactions, and interpreting visual images. We can study how the brain typically processes these stimuli and how this neural response changes with age. We can also study how mind and brain development are different in children who have unique developmental experiences, such as children who are blind.

The MIT Study

I am fortunate to be involved in this research through my work with Dr. Marina Bedny and Dr. Rebecca Saxe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These researchers have already studied language and social cognition in blind adults, using behavioral tests (question and answer) and fMRI. Their research shows that the part of the brain that is used for seeing in sighted people gets recycled for many other jobs in blind people, including understanding language. Scientists used to think that only a small number of specially evolved regions, unique to the human brain, could ever be involved in processing language. By contrast, recent studies suggest the brain is extremely adaptable; parts of the brain typically used for vision can switch to understanding the meanings of words and sentences. This remarkable discovery highlights how experience dramatically alters brain development.

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