How blindness affects the brain

Losing the sense of vision is one of the most tragic events that can happen in a person’s life. The vast majority of people struggle to adapt. But did you know that blindness disrupts the organization of the cerebral cortex and modifies memory?

Losing one of our senses upsets the others. This is why blind people generally have more developed sense of smell, hearing, touch and taste than average. Researchers wanted to understand what the brain’s response to vision loss was, thus carried a study of the brains of blind mice. The research was conducted at the German Ruhr University in Bochum.

Immediate changes in the brain

Scientists observed the brains of mice just after the onset of their blindness and performed spatial memory tests to evaluate their memory. They measured the density of neurotransmitter receptors: these are proteins located in the neuron’s membrane that receive the neurotransmitters, chemical messengers. The researchers compared this density in blind mice to that of healthy mice. Mice that had lost their sight had a modified density of neurotransmitter receptors and a deterioration of the plasticity of synapses in the hippocampus. The latter corresponds to the capacity of the connections between neurons (synapses) to modify their force according to the function they have.

The senses adapt

After several months, the researchers noticed that more the the eyes’s plasticity was damaged, the more the mice’s spatial memory was reduced. Over time, neurotransmitter receptors have been modified in other areas of the brain, such as in the visual cortex, for example. “After blindness, the brain tries to compensate for the loss by increasing its sensitivity to the missing visual cues,” says Denise Manahan-Vaughan, who conducted the study.When this does not work, the other sensory modalities adapt and increase their sensitivity”.

This is not the first study conducted on blindness and performed on mice. In March last year, researchers managed to restore the sight of rodents with gold nanoparticles. They are now trying to apply their results to humans to find a way to cure some eye diseases such as macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa.

Eid Lee

Eid is a freelance journalist from California. He covers different topics for The Talking Democrat but focuses mostly on technology and science.