Blind World

Early blindness tied to sound.

July 17, 2004.
London Free Press.

MONTREAL -- People who become blind at an early age can hear notes more precisely than those with sight or people who go blind later in life, a new study indicates. McGill University and University of Montreal researchers say the findings could aid in the development of sonar-like visual aids for the blind that would paint an auditory picture of their surroundings.

The study, published this week in Nature magazine, summarized sound tests on sighted subjects, as well as others who went blind early in life (before the age of two) and a group whose members lost their sight later (between the ages of five and 45).

Those who lost their sight at an early age were better able to discern between different tones played in rapid succession -- as little as 20 milliseconds apart.

These so-called "early-blind" subjects were also able to correctly distinguish notes 10 times shorter in duration than those recognized by sighted subjects, the study discovered.

Researchers found that the earlier the subjects lost their sight, the better they performed on the sound tests.

Dr. Pascal Belin, who co-authored the study, said the brains of young blind people are better able to reorganize themselves to process other sensory information.

"If they became blind very early in infancy, then this reorganization seems to be much more efficient," said Belin, a professor at the University of Montreal.

"It really is important because it will trigger scientists to pay attention to this factor."

The paper, which looked at seven early-blind people, seven late-blind people and 12 people who can see, is part of a larger study that is studying blindness and the effect it has upon the other senses.

Belin said the data gathered by the Montreal researchers could be used to develop devices that would help the blind navigate their environment more easily.

The units, known as sonification devices, would use non-speech audio to convey information to the user, essentially transforming a visual scene into sound.

"Knowing what is the difference in organization of the brain of blind subjects and normal subjects ultimately will lead to better conception of these devices," said Belin.

"That would help the blind subjects to compensate for their lack of vision."

Dr. Robert Zatorre, another study co-author, said the research also has implications for the music world. He explained that early-blind subjects could use their superior tone-recognition skills to foster a musical career.

Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, who both went blind at an early age, are two of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years.

Zatorre, who works at McGill, said further testing may shed light on whether blind people have untapped potential as musicians.

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