Study suggests infants 'tune in' to familiar face groups

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL--How good are you at recognizing the faces of monkeys? Chances are, you were very good at six months of age, but by nine months you were only good--or at least fast--at discriminating between faces of people. That's the conclusion of a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and two English universities, who say it provides evidence that the brain's ability to perceive faces normally narrows as infants develop. The findings may help guide the treatment of people who suffer impaired ability to recognize faces or read emotions from facial expressions. The study will be published in the May 17 issue of Science.

The work tests an idea of Charles Nelson, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Child Development, Neuroscience and Pediatrics and co-director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, who is also an author of the paper. Nelson had proposed that as infants gain experience viewing faces, their brains--especially a certain area of the cerebral cortex known as the fusiform gyrus--"tune in" to the types of faces they see most often and tune out other types. This implied that younger infants, who have not had enough experience to become specialized in discriminating human faces, ought to do better than older infants or adults at telling faces of other species apart.

In tests of adults, 6-month-olds and 9-month-olds by Olivier Pascalis of the University of Sheffield, England, and Michelle de Haan of University College London, the younger infants outperformed both other groups in distinguishing the faces of monkeys. All groups were able to distinguish human faces from one another. In previous work, Pascalis and a colleague had shown that adult monkeys were better able to distinguish monkey faces than human faces. Both studies illustrate the same pattern, namely that because primates tend to be most familiar with faces of their own species, they learn to distinguish those ty

Contact: Deane Morrison
University of Minnesota

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