The origins of metamodality in visual object area LO: Bodily topographical biases and increased functional connectivity to S1

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Recent evidence from blind participants suggests that visual areas are task-oriented and sensory modality input independent rather than sensory-specific to vision. Specifically, visual areas are thought to retain their functional selectivity when using non-visual inputs (touch or sound) even without having any visual experience. However, this theory is still controversial since it is not clear whether this also characterizes the sighted brain, and whether the reported results in the sighted reflect basic fundamental a-modal processes or are an epiphenomenon to a large extent. In the current study, we addressed these questions using a series of fMRI experiments aimed to explore visual cortex responses to passive touch on various body parts and the coupling between the parietal and visual cortices as manifested by functional connectivity. We show that passive touch robustly activated the object selective parts of the lateral–occipital (LO) cortex while deactivating almost all other occipital–retinotopic-areas. Furthermore, passive touch responses in the visual cortex were specific to hand and upper trunk stimulations. Psychophysiological interaction (PPI) analysis suggests that LO is functionally connected to the hand area in the primary somatosensory homunculus (S1), during hand and shoulder stimulations but not to any of the other body parts. We suggest that LO is a fundamental hub that serves as a node between visual-object selective areas and S1 hand representation, probably due to the critical evolutionary role of touch in object recognition and manipulation. These results might also point to a more general principle suggesting that recruitment or deactivation of the visual cortex by other sensory input depends on the ecological relevance of the information conveyed by this input to the task/computations carried out by each area or network. This is likely to rely on the unique and differential pattern of connectivity for each visual area with the rest of the brain.

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