Complex learning dismantles barriers in the brain

A roundup of media coverage generated by a recent paper by Siuda-Krzywicka, Bola et al., including The Economist, IFLScience and more.
Inside eLife
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In their research paper – Massive cortical reorganization in sighted Braille readers – Siuda-Krzywicka, Bola et al. show how learning complex tasks can blur the lines between the separate areas in the brain that process a specific sense. Their findings were presented in a press release.

The researchers taught Braille to sighted individuals and found that learning such a complex tactile task activates the visual cortex, when you would only expect it to activate the tactile one.

“The textbooks tell us that the visual cortex processes visual tasks while the tactile cortex, called the somatosensory cortex, processes tasks related to touch,” says lead author Marcin Szwed from Jagiellonian University in Poland.

“Our findings tear up that view, showing we can establish new connections if we undertake a complex enough task and are given long enough to learn it.”

Over nine months, 29 volunteers were taught to read Braille while blindfolded. They achieved reading speeds of between 0 and 17 words per minute. Before and after the course, they took part in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) experiment to test the impact of their learning on regions of the brain. This revealed that following the course, areas of the visual cortex, particularly the Visual Word Form Area, were activated and that connections with the tactile cortex were established.

The findings could have implications for our power to bend different sections of the brain to our will by learning other demanding skills, such as playing a musical instrument or learning to drive. The flexibility occurs because the brain overcomes the normal division of labour and establishes new connections to boost its power.

Examples of media coverage featuring this research include: