Every day at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the world’s best scientists collaborate to unravel the mysteries of the human mind. Working together to explore the brain’s complexities — how we think, learn, create, and remember — these researchers seek to cure neurological diseases faster and bring life-changing innovations to the world. American Friends of the Hebrew University supports these efforts because we believe science fuels a brighter future.

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One example of how Hebrew University researchers are revolutionizing neuroscience is mapping brains of the blind.

Studying the brain activity of blind people, scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are challenging the standard view of how the human brain specializes to perform different kinds of tasks and shedding new light on how our brains can adapt to the rapid cultural and technological changes of the 21st century.

The accepted view in previous decades was that the brain is divided into distinct regions mainly by the sensory input that activates them, such as the visual cortex for sight and the auditory cortex for sound. Within these large regions, sub-regions have been defined which are specialized for specific tasks such as the “visual word form area,” a functional brain region believed to identify words and letters from shape images even before they are associated with sounds or meanings. Similarly, there is another area that specializes in number symbols.

However, a series of studies at Hebrew University’s Amedi Lab for Brain and Multisensory Research challenges this view using unique tools known as Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs).

SSDs take information from one sense and present it to another, for example enabling blind people to “see” by using other senses such as touching or hearing. By using a smartphone or webcam to translate a visual image into a distinct soundscape, SSDs enable blind users to create a mental image of objects, such as their physical dimensions and color. With intense training, blind users can even “read” letters by identifying their distinct soundscape.

“These devices can help the blind in their everyday life,” explains Professor Amir Amedi, “but they also open unique research opportunities by letting us see what happens in brain regions normally associated with one sense when the relevant information comes from another.”