The organization of working memory networks is shaped by early sensory experience

Velia Cardin, Mary Rudner, Rita F De Oliveira, Josefine Andin, Merina T Su, Lilli Beese, Bencie Woll, Jerker Rönnberg

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Early deafness results in crossmodal reorganization of the superior temporal cortex (STC). Here, we investigated the effect of deafness on cognitive processing. Specifically, we studied the reorganization, due to deafness and sign language (SL) knowledge, of linguistic and nonlinguistic visual working memory (WM). We conducted an fMRI experiment in groups that differed in their hearing status and SL knowledge: deaf native signers, and hearing native signers, hearing nonsigners. Participants performed a 2-back WM task and a control task. Stimuli were signs from British Sign Language (BSL) or moving nonsense objects in the form of point-light displays. We found characteristic WM activations in fronto-parietal regions in all groups. However, deaf participants also recruited bilateral posterior STC during the WM task, independently of the linguistic content of the stimuli, and showed less activation in fronto-parietal regions. Resting-state connectivity analysis showed increased connectivity between frontal regions and STC in deaf compared to hearing individuals. WM for signs did not elicit differential activations, suggesting that SL WM does not rely on modality-specific linguistic processing. These findings suggest that WM networks are reorganized due to early deafness, and that the organization of cognitive networks is shaped by the nature of the sensory inputs available during development.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3540–3554
Number of pages15
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number10
Early online date30 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


  • deafness
  • language
  • neural plasticity
  • working memory

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