Sensory Experience Dependence and Plasticity

What We Do

During the brain development maturation and experience work jointly to provide the optimal neural representations of the environment to cope with future needs. By studying typical developed individuals, sensory deprivation and sensory restoration, the line of research SEED conducted at the MoMiLab and housed in the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca explores mechanisms underlying functional and structural development, organization and representations of the senses. Investigations on sensory neural systems that are deprived of their typical sensory input, as in the case of congenital blindness or deafness, reveal the complexity of neural systems and their adaptations: on the one hand, neural representations of specific cortical areas can be functionally preserved despite the lack of a sense, on the other hand, intra - and cross-modal plasticity, that is changes of neural responses in spared and deprived sensory modalities, disclose neural plasticity effects which can lead to compensatory abilities. The model of sensory restoration, as in case of sight or hearing recovery, proved being effective to test for the existence of sensitive or critical periods, during which specific experience must be available for typical development of neural circuits or, in striking contrast, to test for the existence of functions which develop independently of early input. All these approaches relay on the understanding of sensory systems development and functioning in a multisensory framework.

Research is conducted at the interface between cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and biological engineering – applying multiple methods such as computational neuroscience, electrical neuroimaging, functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging, psychophysics to elucidate complex neural dynamics.

ONGOING PROJECTS

  • Natural speech signals processing and development

  • Supramodal brain organization in sensory-deprivation

  • Experience dependence of audio-visual streams

  • Structural brain changes in large samples of congenital and late blind people

  • Visual dependence of auditory processing

  • Adaptations of visual functions following deafness

  • Short term plasticity of audio-visual integration


Who We Are

DAVIDEBOTTARI
Principal InvestigatorAssistant Professor, PhDScholar, ResearchGate
ALICE MARTINELLI
Research Collaborator, PhD Candidate
MARTA FANTONI
PhD Student
EMILIANORICCIARDI
Principal InvestigatorAssociate Professor, MD PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
FRANCESCASETTI
PhD Student

DILASUAY
PhD Student
PIETROPIETRINI
Principal InvestigatorFull Professor, MD, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
MARTINABERTO
PhD Student

ALESSANDRA
FEDERICI
Research Collaborator, PhD Candidate
EVGENIABEDNAYA
Research Collaborator, PhD Candidate
CEMALKOBA
PhD Student

What We Publish

EEG frequency-tagging demonstrates increased left hemispheric involvement and crossmodal plasticity for face processing in congenitally deaf signers

Davide Bottari, Evgenia Bednaya, Giulia Dormal, Agnes, Villwock Milena, Dzhelyov Konstantin Grin, Pietro Pietrini, Emiliano Ricciardi, Bruno Rossionde, Brigitte RöderNeuroimage 2020 Aug 31; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117315
In humans, face-processing relies on a network of brain regions predominantly in the right occipito-temporal cortex. We tested congenitally deaf (CD) signers and matched hearing controls (HC) to investigate the experience dependence of the cortical organization of face processing. Specifically, we used EEG frequency-tagging to evaluate: (1) Face-Object Categorization, (2) Emotional Facial-Expression Discrimination and (3) Individual Face Discrimination. The EEG was recorded to visual stimuli presented at a rate of 6 Hz, with oddball stimuli at a rate of 1.2 Hz. In all three experiments and in both groups, significant face discriminative responses were found. Face-Object categorization was associated to a relative increased involvement of the left hemisphere in CD individuals compared to HC individuals. A similar trend was observed for Emotional Facial-Expression discrimination but not for Individual Face Discrimination. Source reconstruction suggested a greater activation of the auditory cortices in the CD group for Individual Face Discrimination. These findings suggest that the experience dependence of the relative contribution of the two hemispheres as well as crossmodal plasticity vary with different aspects of face processing.

Does (lack of) sight matter for V1? New light from the study of the blind brain

Emiliano Ricciardi, Paolo Papale, Luca Cecchetti, Pietro PietriniNeurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Jul 22;118:1-2.doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.07.014
The structural and functional characterization of the brain in congenitally blind individuals is contributing to determine the role of visual experience and, more in general, of early sensory inputs, in shaping brain functional development and (re)organization. The state-of-the-art of this research field is attractively reviewed in this Special issue by Watkins & Bridge and Heimler & Amedi from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. While it is yet unclear how the deprived V1 adapts to lack of visual inputs, the functional specialization of higher-level cortical areas appears to be largely preserved in blind people. Here we propose that also V1 retains its functional sensitivity to specific sensory features, even if not conveyed by the ‘preferred’ sensory modality.

The sensory-deprived brain as a unique tool to understand brain development and function

Ricciardi E, Bottari D, Ptito M, Roeder B, Pietrini P.Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 108:78-82. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.10.017. Epub 2019 Oct 28, Jan 2020.
On October 11th–13th 2018, the second edition of “The Blind Brain Workshop” was held in Lucca (Italy), which gathered most among the leading worldwide experts in the study of the sensory-deprived brain. The aim of the workshop was to tackle, from multiple and different perspectives, the current conceptual and methodological challenges on the topic and to understand how perceptual experience sculpts the brain during development, as well as in adulthood.Altogether, the contributions of this three-day workshop empha- sized that the current understanding of the structural and functional organization as well as the development of the brain has significantly been promoted by the studies on the consequences of sensory-depri- vation both in humans and animals. Nevertheless, by providing a un- ique opportunity for a direct comparison of different sensory-depriva- tion models, the workshop has uncovered open aspects in blindness, deafness and even somatosensory deprivation research. Suggestions for a substantial rethinking were postulated. The event additionally high- lighted the role of early sensory experiences for functional develop- ment. In particular, the research on sensory-restoration has provided first evidence for the role of experience in typical development of dif- ferent neural systems.
See the whole Special Issue 'Rethinking the sensory-deprived brain: hints from the Blind Brain Workshop 2018' on Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews

Auditory features modelling demonstrates sound envelope representation in striate cortex

Alice Martinelli, Giacomo Handjaras, Monica Betta, Andrea Leo, Luca Cecchetti, Pietro Pietrini, Emiliano Ricciardi, Davide BottariBioRxiv. Apr 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.15.043174v1
On October 11th–13th 2018, the second edition of “The Blind Brain Workshop” was held in Lucca (Italy), which gathered most among the leading worldwide experts in the study of the sensory-deprived brain. The aim of the workshop was to tackle, from multiple and different perspectives, the current conceptual and methodological challenges on the topic and to understand how perceptual experience sculpts the brain during development, as well as in adulthood.Altogether, the contributions of this three-day workshop empha- sized that the current understanding of the structural and functional organization as well as the development of the brain has significantly been promoted by the studies on the consequences of sensory-depri- vation both in humans and animals. Nevertheless, by providing a un- ique opportunity for a direct comparison of different sensory-depriva- tion models, the workshop has uncovered open aspects in blindness, deafness and even somatosensory deprivation research. Suggestions for a substantial rethinking were postulated. The event additionally high- lighted the role of early sensory experiences for functional develop- ment. In particular, the research on sensory-restoration has provided first evidence for the role of experience in typical development of dif- ferent neural systems.
See the whole Special Issue 'Rethinking the sensory-deprived brain: hints from the Blind Brain Workshop 2018' on Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews

A protracted sensitive period regulates the development of cross-modal sound–shape associations in humans

Sourav, Suddha, Ramesh Kekunnaya, Idris Shareef, Seema Banerjee, Davide Bottari, and Brigitte Röder. Psychological science 30, no. 10 (2019): 1473-1482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619866625
Humans preferentially match arbitrary words containing higher- and lower-frequency phonemes to angular and smooth shapes, respectively. Here, we investigated the role of visual experience in the development of audiovisual and audiohaptic sound–shape associations (SSAs) using a unique set of five groups: individuals who had suffered a transient period of congenital blindness through congenital bilateral dense cataracts before undergoing cataract-reversal surgeries (CC group), individuals with a history of developmental cataracts (DC group), individuals with congenital permanent blindness (CB group), individuals with late permanent blindness (LB group), and controls with typical sight (TS group). Whereas the TS and LB groups showed highly robust SSAs, the CB, CC, and DC groups did not—in any of the modality combinations tested. These results provide evidence for a protracted sensitive period during …

Motion processing after sight restoration: No competition between visual recovery and auditory compensation

Davide Bottari, Ramesh Kekunnaya, Marlene Hense, Nikolaus F Troje, Suddha Sourav, Brigitte RöderNeuroimage. 2018 Feb 15;167:284-296. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.11.050 Epub 2017 Nov 23.
The present study tested whether or not functional adaptations following congenital blindness are maintained in humans after sight-restoration and whether they interfere with visual recovery. In permanently congenital blind individuals both intramodal plasticity (e.g. changes in auditory cortex) as well as crossmodal plasticity (e.g. an activation of visual cortex by auditory stimuli) have been observed. Both phenomena were hypothesized to contribute to improved auditory functions. For example, it has been shown that early permanently blind individuals outperform sighted controls in auditory motion processing and that auditory motion stimuli elicit activity in typical visual motion areas. Yet it is unknown what happens to these behavioral adaptations and cortical reorganizations when sight is restored, that is, whether compensatory auditory changes are lost and to which degree visual motion processing is reinstalled. Here we employed a combined behavioral-electrophysiological approach in a group of sight-recovery individuals with a history of a transient phase of congenital blindness lasting for several months to several years. They, as well as two control groups, one with visual impairments, one normally sighted, were tested in a visual and an auditory motion discrimination experiment. Task difficulty was manipulated by varying the visual motion coherence and the signal to noise ratio, respectively. The congenital cataract-reversal individuals showed lower performance in the visual global motion task than both control groups. At the same time, they outperformed both control groups in auditory motion processing suggesting that at least some compensatory behavioral adaptation as a consequence of a complete blindness from birth was maintained. Alpha oscillatory activity during the visual task was significantly lower in congenital cataract reversal individuals and they did not show ERPs modulated by visual motion coherence as observed in both control groups. In contrast, beta oscillatory activity in the auditory task, which varied as a function of SNR in all groups, was overall enhanced in congenital cataract reversal individuals. These results suggest that intramodal plasticity elicited by a transient phase of blindness was maintained and might mediate the prevailing auditory processing advantages in congenital cataract reversal individuals. By contrast, auditory and visual motion processing do not seem to compete for the same neural resources. We speculate that incomplete visual recovery is due to impaired neural network turning which seems to depend on early visual input. The present results demonstrate a privilege of the first arriving input for shaping neural circuits mediating both auditory and visual functions.

What We Develop

fMRI encoding/decoding algorithms

Modeling approaches

Our Talks

Emiliano Ricciardi - Invited Seminar: “Rethinking the sensory deprived brain”, University of Bologna, Cesena, April 7, 2020

Emiliano Ricciardi - Keynote Lecture: “La rappresentazione più astratta dell’azione: il contributo delle neuroimmagini” – Convegno Nazionale Scientifico Associazione Italiana Disprassie dell’Età Evolutiva, Rome (Italy), November 17-18, 2019

Emiliano Ricciardi - Oral presentation: “Dalla deprivazione sensoriale alla riabilitazione: cosa abbiamo imparato dal cervello dei ciechi congeniti? in “Simposio S16: Il mondo della disabilità visiva: stato dell’arte e nuove frontiere di ricerca”, XXV Congresso AIP Sezione Sperimentale Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milano 18-20 Settembre 2019

Davide Bottari- Talk : “EEG frequency-tagging demonstrates increased left hemispheric involvement and crossmodal plasticity for face processing in congenitally deaf signers”, at the ICON meeting Helsinki, June, 2020 (rescheduled)

Davide Bottari- Talk : “Auditory features modelling demonstrates sound envelope representation in striate cortex”, at the IMRF meeting Ulm, June, 2020 (rescheduled)

Davide Bottari- Invited seminar: “Experience dependence brain plasticity revealed by temporary and permanent sensory deprivation”, University Catholique of Louvain, March, 2019

Davide Bottari- Invited Seminar: “Experience dependence brain plasticity revealed by temporary and permanent sensory deprivation”, University of Torino, May 8, 2019

Davide Bottari- Invited Seminar: “Experience dependence brain plasticity: models of deprivation and re-afferentation”, New York University Abu Dhabi, Feb, 2019

Davide Bottari- Invited Seminar: “Experience dependence brain plasticity revealed by temporary and permanent sensory deprivation”, IIT Genova, Jan, 2019

Emiliano Ricciardi - Invited Lecture – Blind Brain Workshop: ‘on the Sensory Deprived Brain’ – Lucca, Italy, October 11-13, 2018

Davide Bottari - Invited Lecture – Blind Brain Workshop: ‘on the Sensory Deprived Brain’ – Lucca, Italy, October 11-13, 2018