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Research Shows How Deaf Cats' Brains Re-Purpose Auditory Centers 100

Posted by Soulskill
from the heard-that dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Deaf or blind people often report enhanced abilities in their remaining senses, but up until now, no one has explained how and why that could be. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario, led by Stephen Lomber of The Centre for Brain and Mind, have discovered there is a causal link between enhanced visual abilities and reorganization of the part of the brain that usually handles auditory input in congenitally deaf cats. The findings, published online in Nature Neuroscience, provide insight into the plasticity that may occur in the brains of deaf people."
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Research Shows How Deaf Cats' Brains Re-Purpose Auditory Centers

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  • by MrEricSir (398214) on Monday October 11, 2010 @04:50PM (#33863036) Homepage

    Because getting a hearing aid to fit in a cat's ear would be rather difficult.

  • Ahh yes, (Score:4, Funny)

    by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Monday October 11, 2010 @04:52PM (#33863060) Homepage

    The rare intersection of cats, disabilities, abilities, and jokes:

    What has 9 arms, and ROCKS?

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If only they had studied Deaf Leopards... so much easier to make jokes.

  • that's not nice (Score:2, Informative)

    by tverbeek (457094)

    the plasticity that may occur in the brains of deaf people

    Saying that deaf people have plastic brains is just plain rude! ;)

    • Re:that's not nice (Score:5, Informative)

      by guruevi (827432) <<evi> <at> <smokingcube.be>> on Monday October 11, 2010 @05:00PM (#33863128) Homepage

      Everybody has very plastic brains. I know you meant it as a joke but brain damage usually gets routed around by the body even relocating whole centers to a different part of the brain. This research is just showing that just like brain damage, the body tries to route around the no-input problem from one organ and enhances others to compensate.

      The brain is like a really small Internet. It routes around problems and has plenty of failover, fallbacks and backups for just about any 'site'.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by cpscotti (1032676)
        Will the brain switch to IPv6?
      • by tverbeek (457094)

        Yes, there's a lot of redundancy and plasticity, but it has its limits, and there are plenty of single points of failure. I speak from personal experience: a small ischemic stroke in the hippocampus took out my boyfriend's short-term memory, and despite plenty of healthy brain tissue in the neighborhood, his ability to form new memories was permanently shot.

        • The article explains how some brain functions can be relocated to other parts of the brain. Some other functions, on the other hand, cannot:

          a small ischemic stroke in the hippocampus took out my boyfriend's short-term memory, and despite plenty of healthy brain tissue in the neighborhood, his ability to form new memories was permanently shot.

          Have you seen the film Memento? If so, does it accurately represent the condition?

          • by sznupi (719324)

            50 First Dates would be...nicer.

            • by tverbeek (457094)

              I have too much fondness for the memories I have of my time with my boyfriend, to risk having them overlaid with an Adam Sandler performance. So I can't comment on how accurately that film depicts the condition.

              • by sznupi (719324)

                No too accurate for sure; it essentially depicts a nightly wipe of memories accumulated in each given day, with overall functioning not impaired too much.
                Still, nicer than Memento setting/etc.

          • by tverbeek (457094)

            The nature of any individual's disability after this kind of injury is going to vary a lot, so I'm not in a position to stand up and declare "it could never happen like that". But the character in Memento had a much better grasp of "what's going on right now" than Andy after his stroke. And the character's ability to assemble clues and reach conclusions from them also struck me as a rather bold exercise of dramatic license; Andy can barely carry on a conversation. For the film to work, you have to accept

      • ... but will they blend?

        The real question is - why is this unexpected? It's what I would have expected, and I'm not even deaf!

      • by Thing 1 (178996)
        Here I am: can't see out of my left eye from birth; smartest person I know.
    • "Plastic" is derived from the Greek word meaning "to shape". So it's fine that brains have plasticity.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    He just doesn't give a flying fuck about me unless he wants out, in, or food.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I don't think my cat uses hearing to detect an opened can of food. I did an experiment once where he was on the ground floor and at the opposite end. I carefully and quietly opened the can and *PifF* he teleported into the room, right by the bowl. I don't know how they do that.

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Cats have much, much better hearing and smell than we do. Human hearing tops out around 20kHz, cats above 60kHz.

      • Re:My cat isn't deaf (Score:5, Interesting)

        by FrostDust (1009075) on Monday October 11, 2010 @05:11PM (#33863218)

        That experiment would be more valid if you had different items.

        Use a can of food he wouldn't eat, or something that's not even food, and then the cat food in a different container, like a Ziplock bag. Seperate the stimuli artifically, such as wafting cat-food scents at him, or an audio recording of a can opening.

        Try to figure out which stimuli he's reacting to.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510)

          Use a can of food he wouldn't eat, or something that's not even food,

          Bingo. My cat would come running everytime I used the can opener, regardless of what can.
          Also, if I ran the stereo really loud in the room he was in, he would not react to the can opener in the kitchen.

        • Re:My cat isn't deaf (Score:5, Interesting)

          by shadowbearer (554144) on Monday October 11, 2010 @06:51PM (#33864006) Homepage Journal

            I did this experiment a few years ago on our three (now two) cats. It's definitely the sound of the can opener, they associate it with tuna cans; but I can open any other can and they come running.

            The interesting thing about it is that when my youngest cat was just a few months old, he did not associate the sound of the can with tuna treat - until he observed the other cats running for the kitchen, then he followed along and got a snack. It only took a couple of repetitions before he was responding the same way they did. So it's definitely a learned ability.

            Cats hearing is incredible. I can go outside and down to the mailbox (about 100 ft), open a can, and they'll be waiting for me at the door when I return, even if the windows are closed.

            Cats are extremely intelligent and besides making wonderful companions, are absolutely fascinating to observe. Our oldest, whom we lost about a year and a half ago, was a regular practical joker - he'd pull all sorts of funny stunts clearly designed just to get a laugh out of the humans - and if I pulled the camera out would go extremely photogenic - he clearly knew what it was for. He wasn't just begging for treats, either, we determined that early on - if we tried to give him a treat for his "trick" he'd sniff in a disdainful manner and walk away.

            He was nearly twenty when we lost him and I had the opportunity to watch him refining his "acts" over a decade and a half. My youngest tomcat, mentioned above, is following right along in his path - it does seem that toms, and particularly mixed breed toms, have a considerable amount more awareness than female or purebred cats.

            We miss that old tom a great deal. If one of us was depressed or tired he'd go to extremes to make us laugh, then come and look in our eyes for a while... he was unique in my experience of many cats.

          SB

           

          • by sznupi (719324)

            Hearing certainly, it's way too often that my cat appears to be noticing things which "aren't there" (if anything - behind at least one wall) - but don't you go too far with the rest? "Joker" - everybody involved reinforcing what's good & pleasurable to...everybody; likewise with camera, but a different behavior in different situation; coupled with long presence, full acceptance of the pack, etc.? IIRC cats have problems seeing depth (indeed any meaning) in 2D representations of images the way we do; ce

            • by beav007 (746004)
              I don't get the whole "cats can't understand 2D" thing. Our cat would see birds on the TV, jump up on the cabinet and run behind the TV to get them. She had no issues with 2D image recognition.
              • by sznupi (719324)

                "Problems" doesn't mean "nothing" - but remember TV is a thing with some movement to track / change, a thing with sound; often a focal point for people when they are around (and again, they might influence it / there might be some Clever Hans Effect); isolating such factors would be difficult if they already contributed greatly towards giving the cat some habits.

                But how often does it react to silent stationary photographs with meaningful objects on them? Birds, owners, checking how it reacts to another cat

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by shadowbearer (554144)

              The only way that I can possibly respond to that is to say that you did not live with him and get to know him. I've had enough scientific training that I believe I can differentiate between my bias and objective interpretations. I may be wrong, but after a decade and a half of observing his behaviour, I don't think I am. It may or may not be relevant, but nearly all the "cat people" I know think that I am too objective in the way I treat them (they don't understand the fascination I find in watchin

              • I've had enough scientific training that I believe I can differentiate between my bias and objective interpretations.

                Not to pick on you but this is probably the most dangerous thing a scientist can convince themselves of. The easiest person to fool is always yourself.

                • Oh, I agree. I also think that scientists can be blinded by process, as well - that it can blind us to the obvious facts in front of our faces.*

                  The same caveat wrt fooling oneself applies there; it's just not quite as formalised. Read about the "nature vs. nurture" debate, genetics "vs" environment, sometime. You may be surprised at what you find.

                  * There is no such thing as a human scientist without bias, nor experiment without bias, when it comes to "measurement" of intelligence. W

                  • Oh, I agree. I also think that scientists can be blinded by process, as well - that it can blind us to the obvious facts in front of our faces.*

                    This is the sort of danger I refer to - what is obvious to us may not be the case - and it its process that "saves" us from things that appear to be obvious (i.e. that the earth is flat, sun revolves around earth etc. - these are obvious exaggerations but it displays my point)

                    The same caveat wrt fooling oneself applies there; it's just not quite as formalised. Read about the "nature vs. nurture" debate, genetics "vs" environment, sometime. You may be surprised at what you find.

                    I'm not sure what you mean here - I am actually quite familiar with this area of research.

                    There is no such thing as a human scientist without bias, nor experiment without bias, when it comes to "measurement" of intelligence. We are biased by our very definitions of it. Which is why I prefer subjective measurements; I can be fooled, but in this respect, I can repeat the experiment daily, and "take observations" continually.

                    I think this is the wrong attitude - yes there are no human scientists without bias, which is why we have rules, "best practice", and procedure t

                    •   When it involves the physical sciences,fine. But there is no such thing as "science"when it comes to intelligence and consciousness. There are no theories that can fit the evidence.

                        Oddly enough, your sig here very relevant.

                        Control is an illusion, order our comforting lie. From chaos, through chaos, into chaos we fly

                      SB

        • That experiment would be more valid if you had different items.

          Well, derr, I was aiming for silly, not Insightful. ;)

          But if you're interested in it from a behavioral point of view, I'll point out something I've noticed: They respond to context. I'm the one that feeds both of the cats. My chair in my office makes a distinctive squeaking noise when I stand up. Every time I stand up, my girlfriend's cat immediately leaps off her lap and stands at the base of the stairs. Also, whenever my alarm goes off, they both sit on the bed. If they're really hungry, one of them

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by StikyPad (445176)

        I once performed a similar experiment where I set up a can opener in the backyard with a dish of cat food next to it and left the can opener running. I then used the cats for target practice with my paintball gun. I know you're thinking... a paintball could still cause serious injury, especially to a small animal, which is why I waited till they had taken a bite of the poisoned cat food before I shot them.

        Anyway, the experiment successfully confirmed the hypothesis that I hate cats.

      • by Urkki (668283)

        I don't think my cat uses hearing to detect an opened can of food. I did an experiment once where he was on the ground floor and at the opposite end. I carefully and quietly opened the can and *PifF* he teleported into the room, right by the bowl. I don't know how they do that.

        Didn't you know? Your cat uses hearing to hear your thoughts. The sound made by opening the can was irrelevant in your experiment.

        • Actually.. I think they know I'm opening it because they've ordered me to do it.

          • by Urkki (668283)

            Actually.. I think they know I'm opening it because they've ordered me to do it.

            Hmm, yeah, that coull0hgnsi
            dont be stupid
            cats dont have mind control powers
            Preview
            backspace backspace
            youstupidhuman
            youdienow

  • what? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Monday October 11, 2010 @05:02PM (#33863144) Journal

    but up until now, no one has explained how and why that could be.

    ok, I agree that it's interesting research, but have they really never heard the explanation that they use them more? Neuroplasticity is awesome, but there certainly have been explanations for it before now.....

    • Maybe here "explained" means "proven a hypothesis on." Untested hypotheses aren't worth much.

      • by hedwards (940851)
        AFAICT all they managed to demonstrate was that there was a connection between the beefed up processing and the deafness/blindess. Which is really just a first step towards more thorough study.

        I'd imagine that further research would probably focus on cases where one loses sight or hearing later on in life. Probably what happens when one temporarily loses hearing/vision and when that happens repeatedly versus just once.

        Really, this is just one step towards a lot of other research that's really necessar
        • by c0lo (1497653)

          Probably what happens when one temporarily loses hearing/vision and when that happens repeatedly versus just once.

          Hmmm... maybe true, but somehow I have my doubts this research has any consequence for temporary disabilities. Reasons for the doubts: a single word in TFS, see it quoted/emph-ed below:

          [...]reorganisation of the part of the brain that usually handles auditory input in CONGENITALLY deaf cats

          Besides, the research you imagine assumes that the brain would be not only plastic, but elastic as well (your when that happens repeatedly versus just once). I'm quite afraid that you'll finish in impacting both abilities that you want to "train", by "inducing confusion in the neurons about what they are meant to recognize/pr

  • kthxbi

  • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Monday October 11, 2010 @05:45PM (#33863476) Homepage

    I read the summary, it's kind of interesting. The graphs in the actual article look pretty definitive. But a sentence stood out to me:

    Cats are the only animal besides humans that can be born deaf.

    Does anyone know what that is? I've never heard this before. My natural assumption would be that most animals could be born deaf, and that it's just selected out of the population by natural selection. But if that were the case, we'd expect other animals (especially those without natural selection pressures, such as domesticated Dogs) to be born deaf.

    But just cats and humans? What about other primates?

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      It's a blatantly false statement. Not checked by any journalist reporting on this of course.

    • There are deaf dogs (Score:4, Informative)

      by mrstrano (1381875) on Monday October 11, 2010 @06:29PM (#33863836) Homepage

      Cats are the only animal besides humans that can be born deaf.

      found this in two seconds

      http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=2+1630&aid=857 [peteducation.com]

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ciroknight (601098)
        If you had read your own link, you'd realize that it in no way invalidates the assertion that cats and humans are the only animals born deaf. It simply states that pearl-coated dogs are likely to inherit a degenerative neural disease which kills the auditory neurons during their lifetime; they are born with fully-to-partially functional hearing.

        Still, it seems incredibly unlikely that only humans and cats are born deaf.
    • My understanding (and this is from bits of info picked up over the years) is that domestic cats are the only species that we know of who can be born completely deaf - there are other mammals who can be born with limited and deteriorating hearing, but the latter is likely because of diseases picked up at or before birth. I've heard - and take this with a big grain of salt - that kittens who are born deaf do not vocalize from day one, as many newborn kittens will when trying to find momma's teats.

  • Up Until Now? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ShakaUVM (157947) on Monday October 11, 2010 @07:26PM (#33864356) Homepage Journal

    "Deaf or blind people often report enhanced abilities in their remaining senses, but up until now, no one has explained how and why that could be."

    Up until now? Pfft.

    There's been a lot of experiments done on the brain repurposing unused areas of the brain. For example, a school of the blind in France requires all of their teachers to spend some period of time living in perfect darkness inside a house so that they can better appreciate what their students are going through. Teachers that go through the program report being able to 'see sound', which is basically the result of their visual cortex being repurposed to process audio input, but which the brain is still taking as input into whatever it is that creates our visual senses in our sensorium.

    Likewise, when they leave the darkness, they have a really hard time seeing for a few days, as the brain slowly adjusts back to using the visual cortex for what it was intended for.

    I'd really recommend Dioge's book, The Brain that Changes Itself. It's a good summary of brain plasticity.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Certainly it sounds like something intriguing enough to try, given enough free time and a possibility to completely darken the place where one lives. Hm, considering slashdotters & basements... (plus some audio desktop to eliminate monitor, I guess)

  • Pointless (Score:3, Interesting)

    by evil_aar0n (1001515) on Monday October 11, 2010 @09:52PM (#33865356)

    They didn't need to go to the trouble to "discover" that: they could have asked me. I lost my hearing at age 17 and, in response, my brain increased its abilities 10-fold, easily, so that I'm now the smartest man on the planet. Why, yes, I am wearing my underwear outside of my pants. Why do you ask...?

    No, seriously, I did lose my hearing. I found that I compensated for it by paying way more attention to non-verbal cues. For example, I can tell before an interviewer even knows it, himself, that I'm not gonna get the job. I can also see it, clearly, when someone's trying to BS me. You also learn introspection, since you don't have the auditory distractions.

  • I've always relied very heavily on audio cues my whole life, and have exceptionally developed hearing (perfect pitch, good direction finding, instrument/voice separation, etc). I'm pretty seriously red/green colorblind (failed all the bubble wheels at the optometrist), and I've often wondered if this is related.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I don't think so. My dad is red-green color blind, and his hearing is normal but he claims he's tone deaf.

  • Welcome (Score:4, Funny)

    by captain_dope_pants (842414) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @05:33AM (#33867334)
    I for one welcome our deaf cat overlords.

    I said "I welcome you"

    I WELCOME YOU DEAF CATS!
  • So...how did the scientist get so many deaf cat samples?
    • by Uzuri (906298)

      Many many many white cats are deaf, so it probably wasn't difficult to find natural subjects. But yeah, that sort of thing crosses a lot of minds when you see something like this. In this case, I doubt there were any scientists poking cats' eardrums out.

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