Retinotopic-like maps of spatial sound in primary 'visual' cortex of blind human echolocators.
Norman LJ., Thaler L.
The functional specializations of cortical sensory areas were traditionally viewed as being tied to specific modalities. A radically different emerging view is that the brain is organized by task rather than sensory modality, but it has not yet been shown that this applies to primary sensory cortices. Here, we report such evidence by showing that primary 'visual' cortex can be adapted to map spatial locations of sound in blind humans who regularly perceive space through sound echoes. Specifically, we objectively quantify the similarity between measured stimulus maps for sound eccentricity and predicted stimulus maps for visual eccentricity in primary 'visual' cortex (using a probabilistic atlas based on cortical anatomy) to find that stimulus maps for sound in expert echolocators are directly comparable to those for vision in sighted people. Furthermore, the degree of this similarity is positively related with echolocation ability. We also rule out explanations based on top-down modulation of brain activity-e.g. through imagery. This result is clear evidence that task-specific organization can extend even to primary sensory cortices, and in this way is pivotal in our reinterpretation of the functional organization of the human brain.