We propose a combined field and laboratory approach investigating large-scale cognitive spatial mapping in the blind through virtual navigation, and assessing the transference of acquired spatial knowledge in real-world indoor and outdoor navigation tasks. Training and evaluation of navigation performance will be carried out with a user-centered, computer-based navigation software platform called Haptic Audio Game Application (HAGA). This software was developed to assist in orientation and mobility (O&M) training by introducing blind users to an unfamiliar environment through immersive, simulation-based virtual navigation. Using iconic and spatialized auditory cues and vibro-tactile feedback, a visually impaired user learns to build a cognitive spatial map of their surrounding environment. Using a self-directed, free exploration strategy, users interact with HAGA to navigate through a simulated indoor and outdoor virtual environment that represents an actual physical space (i.e. a school campus). In the first aim of the study, we will compare spatial cognitive map development in early and late blind as well as low vision individuals using the HAGA software versus a group learning setting in which participants learn the layout of the campus using a tactile map. The ability to transfer acquired spatial information will then be assessed with navigation tasks carried out in the actual physical environment. In a second aim of the study, we will investigate the neural correlates associated with virtual navigation and prolonged training. Using functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we will identify and compare the neural networks associated with these skills in early blind and sighted individuals. The innovative combination of an intervention clinical trial study and hypothesis-driven neuroscience investigation will better inform the future design of assistive technology and broad-based O&M training for the blind. From a clinical perspective, this work will have potentially important implications in terms of rehabilitative training by improving navigation skils and promoting independence, while dispelling anecdotal preconceptions regarding the abilities (and disabilities) of the blind and visually impaired.

Public Health Relevance

We propose to investigate cognitive spatial mapping skills in the blind through virtual navigation of real-world environments using computer-based software. The novelty of this study is the development of a virtual reality based learning approach to assist in the training of navigation skills in the blind that, in turn, also serves as a platform for an integrated neuroimaging study investigating the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms associated with navigation abilities. The results of this study will help develop novel approaches for orientation and mobility (O&M) training in the blind and contribute new insights towards our understanding of the neural mechanisms associated with navigation and the adaptation to blindness.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Eye Institute (NEI)
Research Project (R01)
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Bioengineering of Neuroscience, Vision and Low Vision Technologies Study Section (BNVT)
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Wiggs, Cheri
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Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
Independent Hospitals
United States
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