Olulade, O. A., Koo, D. S., LaSasso, C. J., & Eden, G. F. (2014 April,16). Neuroanatomical Profiles of Deafness in the Context of Native Language Experience. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(16).
The study of congenitally deaf adult humans provides an opportunity to examine neuroanatomical plasticity resulting from altered sensory experience. However, attributing the source of the brain's structural variance in the deaf is complicated by the fact that deaf individuals also differ in their language experiences (e.g., sign vs spoken), which likely influence brain anatomy independently. Although the majority of deaf individuals in the United States are born to hearing parents and are exposed to English, not American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, most studies on deafness have been conducted with deaf native users of ASL (deaf signers). This raises the question of whether observations made in deaf signers can be generalized. Using a factorial design, we compared gray (GMV) and white (WMV) matter volume in deaf and hearing native users of ASL, as well as deaf and hearing native users of English. Main effects analysis of sensory experience revealed less GMV in the deaf groups combined (compared with hearing groups combined) in early visual areas and less WMV in a left early auditory region. The interaction of sensory experience and language experience revealed that deaf native users of English had fewer areas of anatomical differences than did deaf native users of ASL (each compared with their hearing counterparts). For deaf users of ASL specifically, WMV differences resided in language areas such as the left superior temporal and inferior frontal regions. Our results demonstrate that cortical plasticity resulting from deafness depends on language experience and that findings from native signers cannot be generalized.