What We Do

During brain development maturation and experience work jointly to provide the optimal neural representations of the environment to cope with future needs. By studying typically developed individuals, sensory deprivation, and sensory restoration, the SEED group 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 the case of sight or hearing recovery, proved to be 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 rely 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
EMILIANORICCIARDI
Principal InvestigatorAssociate Professor, MD PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PIETROPIETRINI
Principal InvestigatorFull Professor, MD, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
EVGENIABEDNAYA
PhD StudentResearchGate
ALICE MARTINELLI
PhD Student
FRANCESCASETTI
Research Collaborator, PhD StudentResearchGateScholar
ALESSANDRA
FEDERICI
MARTINABERTO
PhD StudentScholar
CEMALKOBA
DILASUAY
PhD StudentResearchGate
MARTA FANTONI
PhD StudentResearchGate
NICOLÒCASTELLANI
PhD StudentResearchGate

What We Publish

Social cognition in the blind brain: A coordinate‐based meta‐analysis

Arioli, M., Ricciardi, E., & Cattaneo, Z. (2021) Human Brain Mapping, 42(5), 1243–1256. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.25289
Social cognition skills are typically acquired on the basis of visual information (e.g., the observation of gaze, facial expressions, gestures). In light of this, a critical issue is whether and how the lack of visual experience affects neurocognitive mechanisms underlying social skills. This issue has been largely neglected in the literature on blindness, despite difficulties in social interactions may be particular salient in the life of blind individuals (especially children). Here we provide a meta‐analysis of neuroimaging studies reporting brain activations associated to the representation of self and others' in early blind individuals and in sighted controls. Our results indicate that early blindness does not critically impact on the development of the “social brain,” with social tasks performed on the basis of auditory or tactile information driving consistent activations in nodes of the action observation network, typically active during actual observation of others in sighted individuals. Interestingly though, activations along this network appeared more left‐lateralized in the blind than in sighted participants. These results may have important implications for the development of specific training programs to improve social skills in blind children and young adults.

Three factors to characterize plastic potential transitions in the visual system.

Bottari, D., & Berto, M. (2021). Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 126, 444-446.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.03.035
A comprehensive understanding of brain-environment interactions is elusive even at the sensory level as neural plasticity waxes and wanes across the lifespan. Temporary and permanent visual deprivations remain pivotal approaches for studying the degree of experience-dependent plasticity of sensory functions. Natural models and experimental manipulations of visual experiences have contributed to uncovering some of the guiding principles that characterize transitions of plastic potentials in the human visual system. The existing literature regarding the neural plasticity associated with visual systems has been extensively discussed by two recent reviews articles (R¨oder et al., 2020; Castaldi et al., 2020) which provided an overview of different models of study and methods of investigations, gathering insights on both developing and adult brains. Here, we propose a framework of three main factors to characterize how the driving forces shaping visual circuits mutate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, between early development and adulthood.

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

Bottari, D., Bednaya, E., Dormal, G., Villwock, A., Dzhelyova, M., Grin, K., ... & Röder, B. (2020). NeuroImage, 223, 117315.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.

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

Ricciardi, E., Bottari, D., Ptito, M., Roder, B., & Pietrini, P. (2020). Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev, 108, 78-82.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.10.017


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

Methods we employ

Decompositions of EEG signals in time, frequency and time-frequency

EEG encoding and decoding

fMRI encoding/decoding algorithms

Modeling approaches

Some of our recent talks

Davide Bottari- Talk : “Auditory features modelling demonstrates sound envelope representation in striate cortex”, at the CNS virtual meeting, March, 2021

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

Our Collaborations


  • The Blind Brain Consortium, (a data-sharing initiative comprising many labs around the world)

  • Stefan Debener, (University of Oldenburg, Germany)

  • Marc Ernst, (University of Ulm, Germany)

  • Francesca Garbarini, (Università di Torino)

  • Benedetta Bianchi, (Meyer Hospital, Florence, Italy)

  • Lotfi Merabet, (harvard Medical School, USA)

  • Milan Scheidegger, (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

  • Brigitte Roder, (University of Hamburg, Germany)

  • Zaira Cattaneo, (University of Milan Bicocca, Italy)

  • Tomaso Vecchi, (University of Pavia, Italy)

  • Francesco Pavani, (University of Trento, Italy)

  • Antonio Quatraro, (UIC)