I study the way being born deprived of a sensory modality (for example, being born blind or deaf) affects brain organization and cognition. Studying people born blind, deaf or dysmelic (born without hands) helps learn about how sensory (or motor) experience in each sense is required for specific brain systems to develop, and how these plastically change in their absence.
The sensory-motor deprivation model serves to assess the roles of critical developmental periods, compensatory cross-modal plasticity and sensory-independent (a-modal) processes in the human brain.
Studying the blind brain enables studying how the visual cortex becomes organized to process information through other senses. It is traditionally considered that the visual cortex requires visual experience during early development (in critical or sensitive periods), to develop its proper structure and abilities. My neuroimaging (fMRI) research, along with that of other groups, shows that some of its roles can actually be acquired without any visual experience, so long as they are carried out with other senses.
People born without arms and hands learn to perform all everyday tasks with their feet or mouth. In addition to being an inspiration, they are a fascinating model for how the brain can change to respond to different sensory and motor experience.
Sensory substitution devices (SSDs) are non-invasive sensory aids that provide visual information to the blind via their existing senses. For example, a visual-to-auditory SSD translates images into sounds, retaining the visual shape information. In my PhD work with Amir Amedi, we developed a unique program for teaching blind people how to use the vOICe (an SSD developed by Peter Meijer) to learn to see information captured by a miniature webcam that they carried on their sunglasses.