This Fall marks 14 years since a remarkable meeting took place in the Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey, a ferry ride from the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in Manhattan. The portion of the meeting that took place at the NYAS offices at the World Trade Center, open to the public, was relatively standard fare with basic researchers reviewing their work on neuroplasticity.
It was the private two day pre-meeting in the Atlantic Highlands however, its speakers listed in the e-briefing from the NYAS, which is still very fresh in my mind. The focus of that meeting was on the remediation of amblyopia as a special challenge in brain plasticity. How did I, along with Sue Barry, come to be part of that program?
Earlier that year, in May 2007, Sue Barry, Paul Harris and I travelled to the Vision Sciences Society meeting in Sarasota Florida, which is held the same time each year in that location. The New Yorker magazine article about Stereo Sue had gained traction and we wanted to help bring attention regarding the significance of optometric vision therapy to a wider scientific audience. The story behind that meeting, and our experiences there, is told in detail in an essay in the Journal of Behavioral Optometry published that year.
The key individual we that we spent time with was Dennis Levi, a prolific researcher in amblyopia and Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Optometry. I knew that Dennis had been mentored by Selwyn Super in South Africa, and had first come to the United States many years before to do an internship program at the SUNY College of Optometry. He had learned firsthand of the benefits of vision therapy, and at some level was receptive to what we were doing clinically. Our discussions led to the invitation to Sue and me to present at the Brain CPR (Critical Periods Revisited) meeting.
That is Sue, seated on your left, adjacent to Donald Mitchell and Takao Hensch. The meeting was funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation. McDonnell was an aviation pioneer who was very philanthropic toward initiatives in cognitive neuroscience. Daphne Maurer from McMaster University in Canada was instrumental in organizing the meeting, which was also attended by Brian Wandell. All of the presenters were “heavy hitters” on the subject of critical periods in the brain, but a key participant, whose significance I would come to appreciate even more in hindsight, was Bruce McCandliss, now a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford. That is me at the slide below, giving a presentation on the clinical optometric approach to visual plasticity in amblyopia, and Bruce is the ruddy individual to my left. In her presentation Sue Barry alluded to the difficulties she had with reading as a child due to her compromised binocularity, and Bruce was hungry to learn more. He arranged to visit my office and we spent several hours going over the optometric approach to binocular vision and eye movements as it pertains to reading.
Bruce had made a name for himself in reading research as lead author of an oft-cited paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2003) on the visual word form area, together with Laurent Cohen and Stanislas Dehaene. I’ve blogged quite a bit about Dehaene, and the significance of his research to vision and reading. Bruce meanwhile has remained a champion of the role of visual circuits and their integration with phonemic awareness in early literacy, and the job that is required to get children firing on all cylinders when reading. You can gain a flavor of his enthusiasm in this recent podcast.
The work that McCandliss, Laurent and Dehaene did in elucidating the visual word form area on the brain continues to pay dividends. Just this September, in the Annual Review of Vision Science, Yeatman and White cited their work heavily in their paper on reading as the confluence of vision and language. Keywords in the paper are listed as: reading, visual word form area, VWFA, dyslexia, word recognition, retinotopy, and its abstract notes the following:
“The scientific study of reading has a rich history that spans disciplines from vision science to linguistics, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neurology, and education. The study of reading can elucidate important general mechanisms in spatial vision, attentional control, object recognition, and perceptual learning, as well as the principles of plasticity and cortical topography. However, literacy also prompts the development of specific neural circuits to process a unique and artificial stimulus. In this review, we describe the sequence of operations that transforms visual features into language, how the key neural circuits are sculpted by experience during development, and what goes awry in children for whom learning to read is a struggle.”
The air was rarefied at times during those two days in the Atlantic Highlands with Drs. Barry, Hensch, Levi, Maurer, McCandliss, Mitchell, and Wandell fourteen years ago. It made an indelible impression on those who attended a very special meeting of the Brain CPR.