Visual cortex recruitment during language processing in blind individuals is explained by Hebbian learning

Rosario Tomasello, Thomas Wennekers, Max Garagnani & Friedemann Pulvermüller

Max Garagnani, lecturer and co-programme leader of Goldsmith’s MSc in Computational Cognitive Neuroscience has co-authored an article recently published in Scientific Reports. You can find the full, open access version here.

Rosario Tomasello, Thomas Wennekers, Max Garagnani & Friedemann pulvermülle from original Open Source article covered by Creative Commons license:


In blind people, the visual cortex takes on higher cognitive functions, including language. Why this functional reorganisation mechanistically emerges at the neuronal circuit level is still unclear. Here, we use a biologically constrained network model implementing features of anatomical structure, neurophysiological function and connectivity of fronto-temporal-occipital areas to simulate word-meaning acquisition in visually deprived and undeprived brains. We observed that, only under visual deprivation, distributed word-related neural circuits ‘grew into’ the deprived visual areas, which therefore adopted a linguistic-semantic role. Three factors are crucial for explaining this deprivation-related growth: changes in the network’s activity balance brought about by the absence of uncorrelated sensory input, the connectivity structure of the network, and Hebbian correlation learning. In addition, the blind model revealed long-lasting spiking neural activity compared to the sighted model during word recognition, which is a neural correlate of enhanced verbal working memory. The present neurocomputational model offers a neurobiological account for neural changes following sensory deprivation, thus closing the gap between cellular-level mechanisms, system-level linguistic and semantic function.