Date Published:2009 May
People tend to close their eyes when trying to retrieve an event or a visual image from memory. However the brain mechanisms behind this phenomenon remain poorly understood. Recently, we showed that during visual mental imagery, auditory areas show a much more robust deactivation than during visual perception. Here we ask whether this is a special case of a more general phenomenon involving retrieval of intrinsic, internally stored information, which would result in crossmodal deactivations in other sensory cortices which are irrelevant to the task at hand. To test this hypothesis, a group of 9 sighted individuals were scanned while performing a memory retrieval task for highly abstract words (i.e., with low imaginability scores). We also scanned a group of 10 congenitally blind, which by definition do not have any visual imagery per se. In sighted subjects, both auditory and visual areas were robustly deactivated during memory retrieval, whereas in the blind the auditory cortex was deactivated while visual areas, shown previously to be relevant for this task, presented a positive BOLD signal. These results suggest that deactivation may be most prominent in task-irrelevant sensory cortices whenever there is a need for retrieval or manipulation of internally stored representations. Thus, there is a task-dependent balance of activation and deactivation that might allow maximization of resources and filtering out of non relevant information to enable allocation of attention to the required task. Furthermore, these results suggest that the balance between positive and negative BOLD might be crucial to our understanding of a large variety of intrinsic and extrinsic tasks including high-level cognitive functions, sensory processing and multisensory integration.