Learning to see again: Biological constraints on cortical plasticity and the implications for sight restoration technologies

Michael Beyeler, Ariel Rokem, Geoffrey M. Boynton, Ione Fine Journal of Neural Engineering 14(5)

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The ‘bionic eye’—so long a dream of the future—is finally becoming a reality with retinal prostheses available to patients in both the US and Europe. However, clinical experience with these implants has made it apparent that the visual information provided by these devices differs substantially from normal sight. Consequently, the ability of patients to learn to make use of this abnormal retinal input plays a critical role in whether or not some functional vision is successfully regained. The goal of the present review is to summarize the vast basic science literature on developmental and adult cortical plasticity with an emphasis on how this literature might relate to the field of prosthetic vision. We begin with describing the distortion and information loss likely to be experienced by visual prosthesis users. We then define cortical plasticity and perceptual learning, and describe what is known, and what is unknown, about visual plasticity across the hierarchy of brain regions involved in visual processing, and across different stages of life. We close by discussing what is known about brain plasticity in sight restoration patients and discuss biological mechanisms that might eventually be harnessed to improve visual learning in these patients.

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