On Face Blindness

Human babies prefer to look at faces and pictures of faces over any other object or pattern. A recent study found that even fetuses in the womb will turn their heads towards dots of light shone through the mother’s skin if the dots broadly resemble a face. Brain imaging studies show that face recognition depends on the coordinated activity of multiple brain regions. A core set of areas towards the back of the brain processes the visual features of faces, while regions elsewhere process more variable features such as emotional expressions.

Around 2% of people are born with difficulties in recognizing faces, a condition known as congenital prosopagnosia. These individuals have no obvious anatomical abnormalities in the brain, and brain scans reveal normal activity in core regions of the face processing network. So why do these people have difficulty with face recognition?

One possibility is that the condition reflects differences in the number of connections (or “connectivity”) between brain regions within the face processing network. To test this idea, Rosenthal et al. compared connectivity in individuals with congenital prosopagnosia with that in healthy volunteers. In the healthy volunteers, an area of the network called the anterior temporal cortex was highly connected to many other face processing regions: that is, it acted as a face processing hub. In individuals with congenital prosopagnosia, this hub-like connectivity was missing. Instead, a number of core regions involved in processing the basic visual features of faces, were more highly connected to one another. The greater this “hyperconnectivity”, the better the individual’s face processing abilities.

The findings of Rosenthal et al. pave the way for developing imaging-based tools to diagnose congenital prosopagnosia. The same approach could then be used to investigate the basis of other neurodevelopmental disorders that are thought to involve abnormal communication within brain networks, such as developmental dyslexia.

Adapted from Rosenthal, G, Tanzer, M., Simony, E., Hasson, U., Behrmann, M., Avidan G. (2017). Altered topology of neural circuits in congenital prosopagnosia. Elife. 2017 Aug 21;6. pii: e25069. doi: 10.7554/eLife.25069