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Carnegie Mellon researchers open window into the ability of humans to recognize faces

PITTSBURGH--Recognizing faces is effortless for most people, and it's an ability that provides great evolutionary and social advantages. But this ability is impaired in people who have suffered brain damage or in those with a rare congenital condition, and research by Carnegie Mellon University psychologists reveals startling insights into how the brains of those individuals operate. Psychology Professor Marlene Behrmann and postdoctoral associate Galia Avidan have found that people with congenital prosopagnosia--in which their ability to recognize faces is impaired from birth--are not just deficient at recognizing individuals they know, but they are also poor at simply discriminating between two faces when presented side by side. The researchers also have discovered through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans that, contrary to their expectations, the regions of the brain that are activated when normal individuals perceive and recognize faces also are activated in individuals with congenital prosopagnosia (CP). Behrmann and Avidan will summarize the results of their findings in the April issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

"This now presents a large scientific challenge. Given that the impaired behavior in those individuals with prosopagnosia is a function of the brain, we need to identify the neural system that has given rise to this altered pattern of behavior," Behrmann said. "The detective work is well under way."

Unlike the acquired form of prosopagnosia--which results from brain damage such as that suffered in a stroke--congenital prosopagnosia can go undetected, as the person has no means of comparison with normal face processing skills. This can have socially debilitating consequences, and on occasion children with this condition have been misdiagnosed as having autism.

"The potential ramifications of CP are best captured in the words of one individual whom we have had the opportunity to test: 'I h
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Contact: Jonathan Potts
jpotts@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-6094
Carnegie Mellon University
4-Apr-2005


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