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Tactile spatial working memory activates the dorsal extrastriate cortical pathway in congenitally blind individuals

Daniela Bonino, Emiliano Ricciardi, Lorenzo Sani, Claudio Gentili, Nicola Vanello, Mario Guazzelli, Tomaso Vecchi, Pietro Pietrini


In sighted individuals, both the visual and tactile version of the same spatial working memory task elicited neural responses in the dorsal “where” cortical pathway (Ricciardi et al., 2006). Whether the neural response during the tactile working memory task is due to visually-based spatial imagery or rather reflects a more abstract, supramodal organization of the dorsal cortical pathway remains to be determined. To understand the role of visual experience on the functional organization of the dorsal cortical stream, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) here we examined brain response in four individuals with congenital or early blindness and no visual recollection, while they performed the same tactile spatial working memory task, a one-back recognition of 2D and 3D matrices. The blind subjects showed a significant activation in bilateral posterior parietal cortex, dorsolateral and inferior prefrontal areas, precuneus, lateral occipital cortex, and cerebellum. Thus, dorsal occipito-parietal areas are involved in mental imagery dealing with spatial components in subjects without prior visual experience and in response to a non-visual task. These data indicate that recruitment of the dorsal cortical pathway in response to the tactile spatial working memory task is not mediated by visually-based imagery and that visual experience is not a prerequisite for the development of a more abstract functional organization of the dorsal stream. These findings, along with previous data indicating a similar supramodal functional organization within the ventral cortical pathway and the motion processing brain regions, may contribute to explain how individuals who are born deprived of sight are able to interact effectively with the surrounding world.

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