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11:46 AM ET 11/30/98

Brain rewires itself in deaf, blind people-U.S. study


CHICAGO (Reuters) - Two university studies on deaf and blind

people released Monday provide further evidence that their

brains ``rewire'' themselves to find uses for areas that would

have been devoted to hearing or sight.

Researchers at two U.S. universities used a procedure known

as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to measure blood flow

in the brains of deaf and blind people to show that areas

associated with processing sounds and images remained active.

``This shows the brain does, essentially, rewire itself,''

Victoria Morgan, a radiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical

Center in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a report to the

Radiological Society of North America.

``Although we're just scratching the surface, this suggests things

are wide open for people with brain injuries. Perhaps

their brains can adapt and can learn to do tasks the damaged

area can no longer accomplish,'' she said.

The Vanderbilt study included six people who were blind at

birth or shortly after and eight people who lost their sight

after birth. The research showed that the visual cortex, which

sighted people use to process vision, was active in all the

blind patients as they read Braille.

In a University of Rochester, New York, study, the imaging

technique was done on six people who were born deaf and six

hearing people while they performed a series of

visually-oriented tasks.

The researchers noted activity in the superior temporal

lobes -- used to process sound and speech in hearing people --

were active while the deaf patients read lips or did other

visual tasks. The temporal lobes were inactive in hearing people

performing visual tasks.

``The findings are preliminary, but a better understanding

of deaf physiology ultimately may help guide strategies for deaf

education,'' radiologist Dean Shibata said. He said the findings

might also put neurosurgeons on alert that areas of the brain

associated with hearing are still actively used by deaf people.