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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

January 2017, Vol. 29, No. 1, Pages 65-78
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01045)
© 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Reduced Left Lateralization of Language in Congenitally Blind Individuals
Article PDF (660.56 KB)

Language processing depends on a left-lateralized network of frontotemporal cortical regions. This network is remarkably consistent across individuals and cultures. However, there is also evidence that developmental factors, such as delayed exposure to language, can modify this network. Recently, it has been found that, in congenitally blind individuals, the typical frontotemporal language network expands to include parts of “visual” cortices. Here, we report that blindness is also associated with reduced left lateralization in frontotemporal language areas. We analyzed fMRI data from two samples of congenitally blind adults (n = 19 and n = 13) and one sample of congenitally blind children (n = 20). Laterality indices were computed for sentence comprehension relative to three different control conditions: solving math equations (Experiment 1), a memory task with nonwords (Experiment 2), and a “does this come next?” task with music (Experiment 3). Across experiments and participant samples, the frontotemporal language network was less left-lateralized in congenitally blind than in sighted individuals. Reduction in left lateralization was not related to Braille reading ability or amount of occipital plasticity. Notably, we observed a positive correlation between the lateralization of frontotemporal cortex and that of language-responsive occipital areas in blind individuals. Blind individuals with right-lateralized language responses in frontotemporal cortices also had right-lateralized occipital responses to language. Together, these results reveal a modified neurobiology of language in blindness. Our findings suggest that, despite its usual consistency across people, the neurobiology of language can be modified by nonlinguistic experiences.