Scientists find evidence that early deafness can lead to sharper vision

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND—It has long been popular folk wisdom that people who lose one of their senses early in life help compensate for it by developing another sense more acutely. For example, the large number of blind musicians is sometimes cited as evidence that lack of vision results in enhanced auditory sensibility and thereby promotes outstanding musical gifts.

A recent study, conducted by researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Academic Unit of Ophthalmology and Orthoptics, has identified a specific mechanism seen in people who are born deaf or have early-onset deafness that correlates with improved vision.   Led by Drs. Charlotte Codina and David Buckley, the team of scientists analyzed retinal imaging data and measures of peripheral vision sensitivity. They discovered that the retinas of deaf people developed differently from those of subjects who grew up hearing normally.

Specifically, the research, which was published June 1 in the journal PLoS ONE, showed that neurons in deaf people were spread uniformly around the retina. That enabled them to capture more peripheral visual information.  Earlier studies also found that deaf people could see further into the visual periphery than hearing adults, but they thought the difference was explained by change in the visual cortex.

However, the new study, funded by Action on Hearing Loss, reached a different conclusion. Codina commented, “The retina has been highly doubted previously as being able to change to this degree, so these results which show an adaptation to the retina in the deaf really challenge previous thinking… Our hope is that as we understand the retina and vision of deaf people better, we can improve visual care for deaf people, the sense which is so profoundly important to them.”   can lead to sharper vision