Researchers discuss findings of brain’s plasticity at conference

The brain’s ability to change or adapt across a person’s lifespan is much greater than originally thought and scientists are still discovering just how far that plasticity goes. At the upcoming International Conference on Plastic Vision at York, some 24 researchers from around the world will discuss their latest findings.

Jennifer Steeves“We try to touch on everyone’s area of study in vision research, from brain and visual-motor plasticity to computer models and robotics,” says York psychology Professor Jennifer Steeves (right).

The conference will take place June 15 to 18 in the Computer Science & Engineering Building (CSEB), Keele campus. Registration will take place in the CSEB lobby and speaker presentations will be held in CSEB Lecture Hall C. It is hosted by York’s Centre for Vision Research in the Faculty of Health.

One of the speakers, professor of biological sciences and neuroscience Susan Barry of Mt. Holyoke College, will discuss her own experiences and research with the extent of the brain’s plasticity. At one time it was believed that the brain was only malleable during a “critical period” in early childhood, but then, at the age of 48, Barry overcame the stereoblindness Susan Barryshe’d had since infancy through optometric vision therapy. She realized at that point there was no absolute “critical period” and that the brain could change and adapt well into adulthood.

Left: Susan Barry

Barry will review the natural history of infantile esotropia – where one or both eyes turn in – demonstrate several rehabilitation procedures that promote stereovision and describe possible mechanisms for wiring changes in the brain. She is the author of Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions (2009).

Professor Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco, will discuss brain plasticity across the human lifespan and how all plasticity mechanisms are, by their fundamental nature, reversible. A large body of behavioural, electrophysiological and neuroimaging studies have documented the progressive neurological changes that arise as a function of normal aging and as expressions of chronic neurological and psychiatric diseases.

“I shall argue that a number of these illnesses represent failure modes of our self-organizing neurological machinery,” says Merzenich. These studies of the neurological distortions recorded in patient populations provide “roadmaps” for potentially addressing plasticity-induced changes therapeutically. “I shall illustrate this therapeutic potential by discussing our early progress in Josef Rauschecker developing treatments designed to prevent and/or ameliorate the expressions of chronic neurological and psychiatric illness.”

Professor Josef Rauschecker (right) of Georgetown University will present his talk on “Functional Specialization in the Visual Cortex of the Blind”, which looks at how the modules in the brain responsible for sight retain their functional specialization in people blind from birth. The difference is that these modules are “hijacked” by input from a non-visual modality, such as audition or touch.

Professor Franco Lepore of the University of Montreal will discuss “Cross-Modal Plasticity in Blind and Deaf Subjects: Results on Cortical Reorganization and Performance Do Not Seem to Always Point in the Same Direction”.

Franco LeporeLeft: Franco Lepore

“Numerous results obtained in our laboratory on blind individuals consistently indicate that when tested on behavioural tasks, such as tone discrimination, sound localization in far and near space, navigation on a tactile labyrinth or in angle discrimination, they generally outperform the sighted,” says Lepore. “At the cortical level, it appears that this supra-performance rests on the recruitment of visual areas.” However, the same does not seem to hold true for deaf individuals, who show somewhat poorer visual abilities for even low-level functions.

For registration information, including a compete list of speakers, click here; or to read the abstracts, click here. For more information or to download the conference program, visit the Centre for Vision Research website or contact Teresa Manini, Centre for Vision Research administrative assistant, at