Infants who go blind at a very young age develop musical abilities that are measurably better than those who lose their sight later in life or retain full vision, according to a new study.
It has long been known that blind people are far better than their sighted counterparts at orientating themselves by sound.
But now scientists at Canada’s University of Montreal have found that blind people are also up to 10 times better at discerning pitch changes than the sighted - but only when they went blind before the age of two.
“This research confirms that blind people are indeed better at pitch discrimination than normal, sighted people,” lead researcher Pascal Belin told Reuters.
“It is well known that you have great musicians that are blind, and a lot of piano tuners are blind. But until this study there was no quantifiable evidence to demonstrate that blind people were indeed better,” he added.
But crucially, Belin’s team found there was no difference in pitch change detection between sighted people and those who went blind later in childhood.
“We found that the superiority was correlated with the age of blindness,” Belin said.
“Only the blind subjects who had become blind before the age of two had a clearly superior performance. Late blind subjects, people who became blind after the age of five, were no different from the control subjects,” he added.
The research, published in the science journal Nature attributed the clear differences in performance to brain plasticity - the formative period when the infant brain is akin to a sponge and soaking up all sorts of stimuli.
Belin said his research suggested that deprived of input, the section of the brain that would have processed images was reassigned to enhance other sectors.
“When these people became blind, the part of their brain that would have been used to process visual information reorganizes to take over other functions - and in particular auditory information,” Belin said. “And the earlier this reorganization takes place, the more efficient it is.”
SOURCE: Nature, July 15, 2004.
Revision date: July 3, 2011
Last revised: by Dave R. Roger, M.D.