"The way in which this ability develops has profound implications for those who are born blind or deaf, or who suffer from disorders such as autism and dyslexia in which early sensory processes are altered," said Mark Wallace, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "Knowing how these brain circuits mature may one day be used to tailor treatment strategies for those who have problems in basic sensory processes."
Wallace and colleagues presented the results from two related studies this week at the 35th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C.
The goal of the studies was to learn more about multisensory integration, which refers to the brain's ability to combine information from our different senses. Although much is now known about how multisensory integration is carried out in "lower" brain regions such as the brainstem, little is known about multisensory integration in "higher" brain regions such as the neocortex a region responsible for our perceptions.
The researchers studied individual neurons in the neocortex of cats to see how they respond to sight, sound and touch. Surprisingly, they found that many of the neurons could respond to stimuli in several of these senses.
"The neurons responses to combinations of sensory stimuli were often must greater than we predicted," said Wallace. "This suggests that these neurons have the capacity to greatly amplify their signals when confronted with stimuli from multiple senses."