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How do the blind ‘see’? The role of spontaneous brain activity in self-generated perception

Hahamy, A; Wilf, M; Rosin, B; Behrmann, M; Malach, R; (2021) How do the blind ‘see’? The role of spontaneous brain activity in self-generated perception. Brain , 144 (1) pp. 340-353. 10.1093/brain/awaa384. Green open access

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Abstract

Spontaneous activity of the human brain has been well documented, but little is known about the functional role of this ubiquitous neural phenomenon. It has previously been hypothesized that spontaneous brain activity underlies unprompted (internally generated) behaviour. We tested whether spontaneous brain activity might underlie internally-generated vision by studying the cortical visual system of five blind/visually-impaired individuals who experience vivid visual hallucinations (Charles Bonnet syndrome). Neural populations in the visual system of these individuals are deprived of external input, which may lead to their hyper-sensitization to spontaneous activity fluctuations. To test whether these spontaneous fluctuations can subserve visual hallucinations, the functional MRI brain activity of participants with Charles Bonnet syndrome obtained while they reported their hallucinations (spontaneous internally-generated vision) was compared to the: (i) brain activity evoked by veridical vision (externally-triggered vision) in sighted controls who were presented with a visual simulation of the hallucinatory streams; and (ii) brain activity of non-hallucinating blind controls during visual imagery (cued internally-generated vision). All conditions showed activity spanning large portions of the visual system. However, only the hallucination condition in the Charles Bonnet syndrome participants demonstrated unique temporal dynamics, characterized by a slow build-up of neural activity prior to the reported onset of hallucinations. This build-up was most pronounced in early visual cortex and then decayed along the visual hierarchy. These results suggest that, in the absence of external visual input, a build-up of spontaneous fluctuations in early visual cortex may activate the visual hierarchy, thereby triggering the experience of vision.

Type: Article
Title: How do the blind ‘see’? The role of spontaneous brain activity in self-generated perception
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1093/brain/awaa384
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awaa384
Language: English
Additional information: © The Author(s) (2020). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Guarantors of Brain. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology > Imaging Neuroscience
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10115769
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