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EACISD Report Summary

Project ID: 654837
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EACISD (Embodied and Abstract Concepts in Sensory-motor Deprivation)

Reporting period: 2015-05-01 to 2017-04-30

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

How is information organized in the brain? Does our understanding of everyday concepts, actions and objects rely on our perceptual experience, and our ability to sense them? How would a rainbow be represented in people blind from birth? Can this uncover how abstract information is coded in our brains? And more broadly, how does sensory experience affect our brain organisation and perception?
These puzzles are at core of modern cognitive and systems neuroscience and of our understanding of brain organization and function. The target of the research project is to address the role of sensory experience in concept representation and brain organization, by conducting a systematic interdisciplinary neuroimaging investigation of a combination of special populations, each deprived from birth from an entire sensory modality or ability (people born blind, deaf or without hands).

The research project addresses the neural correlates of concepts’ symbolic and sensory-independent representations, as well as their linked sensory-motor features, by studying representation of imperceptible and perceptible concepts in different populations. Furthermore, the project investigates the dependence on sensory-motor experience in brain organization for various regions, from the primary auditory and sensorimotor cortices to abstract representations of hand actions of others. At the final reintegration stage, these questions will also be extended to study the development of neural correlates of concepts in children.

The project includes transfer of knowledge back to the EU and strengthening the EU’s research collaboration network, along with significant career development of the fellow, training in state-of-the-art methods, international research, mentoring and presentation experience.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

We have performed several fMRI experiments on three different special populations using state-of-the-art analyses to address the role of sensorimotor experience.

To study the representation of non-sensory, semantic information, the neural correlates in congenitally blind and upper limb dysplasic (ULD; born without hands) subjects were studied with fMRI with regard to concepts which are either sensorily concrete (e.g. every-day objects), fully abstract (e.g. “justice”), imperceptible by the different subject groups (impossible to physically perceive or utilize motorically; e.g. a rainbow to a man blind from birth, a manually-handled tool to a ULD person) and perceptible (sensorily accessible; e.g. rain to a blind man and a usable tool to a ULS person).
Intermediate findings show that different parts of the brain, in the left anterior temporal lobe (lATL), show preference for imperceptible and perceptible concepts, across the populations. These two regions in lATL belong to different functional neural networks, as found in brain resting-state fluctuations. These findings support classical cognitive theories, showing that concepts’ symbolic and non-sensory representations can be processed separately from sensory-motor features, and suggesting the division of labour in the lATL which may underlie this distinction.
A manuscript describing these results is under preparation for publication. This study was carried out in collaboration with Xiaoying Wang, Yanchao Bi and Alfonso Caramazza.

Furthermore, we studied the dependence of perception and brain organization on sensorimotor experience.
In an fMRI experiment studying responses to tools, we found that despite having no experience in manipulating tools with their hands, the visual cortex of the ULDs contained the typical hand-tool- selectivity overlap seen in controls (Bracci et al., 2012), theorized to arise from the common use of tools and hands. This suggests that one’s own sensorimotor experience is not needed for this region’s development, and in conjunction with findings of intact domain selectivity in people born blind (e.g. (Heimler et al., 2015)), supports the notion that brain organization develops in each individual based on innate evolutionary-derived connectivity constraints (Mahon and Caramazza, 2009, 2011), which develop largely prior to birth and to sensory exposure, regardless of their experience in any one modality.
A paper covering these results was published in 2017 in PNAS (Striem-Amit et al., 2017), and this work was presented in conferences, workshops and seminars. This study was carried out in collaboration with Gilles Vannuscorps and Alfonso Caramazza.

In another experiment measuring the responses to manual action perception, in accordance with this notion, preliminary findings suggest that the decoding of abstract hand actions was possible in the ULD visual cortex regions that process actions in controls, regardless of the motor ability to conduct them. A manuscript describing these results is under preparation for publication. This study was carried out in collaboration with Gilles Vannuscorps, Moritz Wurm and Alfonso Caramazza.

In an investigation of the organization of the early sensory cortices in sensory deprivation, we found that like the visual cortex of the blind (Bock et al., 2014; Butt et al., 2015; Striem-Amit et al., 2015), the deaf auditory cortex also develops its typical topographic network organization without sensory inputs during development. This again supports the role of innate (prenatal) connectivity development as an important factor in brain organization. This notion has far reaching implications for the rehabilitation and treatment of early sensory loss, which under standard developmental models are considered incurable due to deprivation during early development critical periods (Hensch, 2004). A paper covering these results was published in in Scientific Reports ((Striem-Amit et al., 2016); done in collaboration

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The project has already achieved new discoveries beyond the scientific state of the art, contributing to our theoretical understanding of the brain and cognition (details above). These findings were published in several scientific papers, including in high impact journals, and presented in multiple international scientific conferences, workshops and seminars. Multiple other papers are in different stages of preparation and are likely to also generate high scientific impact. The study’s findings were also disseminated through press releases, popular science journals and websites and made available to the public. Some of these findings have potential clinical implications (see detail below), and may lead to development of new rehabilitative measures or the modification of existing ones. The project also created collaboration of several researchers in the US and Europe, extending and strengthening the EU’s research collaboration network.

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