Working memory training in congenitally blind individuals results in an integration of occipital cortex in functional networks

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Abstract

The functional relevance of crossmodal activation (e.g. auditory activation of occipital brain regions) in congenitally blind individuals is still not fully understood. The present study tested whether the occipital cortex of blind individuals is integrated into a challenged functional network. A working memory (WM) training over four sessions was implemented. Congenitally blind and matched sighted participants were adaptively trained with an n-back task employing either voices (auditory training) or tactile stimuli (tactile training). In addition, a minimally demanding 1-back task served as an active control condition. Power and functional connectivity of EEG activity evolving during the maintenance period of an auditory 2-back task were analyzed, run prior to and after the WM training. Modality-specific (following auditory training) and modality-independent WM training effects (following both auditory and tactile training) were assessed. Improvements in auditory WM were observed in all groups, and blind and sighted individuals did not differ in training gains. Auditory and tactile training of sighted participants led, relative to the active control group, to an increase in fronto-parietal theta-band power, suggesting a training-induced strengthening of the existing modality-independent WM network. No power effects were observed in the blind. Rather, after auditory training the blind showed a decrease in theta-band connectivity between central, parietal, and occipital electrodes compared to the blind tactile training and active control groups. Furthermore, in the blind auditory training increased beta-band connectivity between fronto-parietal, central and occipital electrodes. In the congenitally blind, these findings suggest a stronger integration of occipital areas into the auditory WM network.

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