Studying face blindness requires naturalistic emotional stimuli

Studying face blindness requires naturalistic emotional stimuli

Face blindness is a condition that affects about 2% of the population's ability to do what many consider an effortless task - to recognize faces of family, friends, and other acquaintances. A small number of people find it difficult to identify the person with whom they are meting or remembering people that they have previously met. Some, in fact, cannot recognize the faces of spouses, children, or even their own faces. To better understand developmental face disorders, recent research on face blindness stresses the importance of using naturalistic emotional faces and bodies.

A study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE and

Faces offer information on a person's gender, age, emotion, familiarity, and attractiveness. Depending on the context, these details can be called upon and used either quite rapidly or after full recognition of facial attributes, including a name. In order to evaluate face recognition problems and to understand it neuro-functional basis and potential deficits, the contextual requirements and the task settings are very important.

De Gelder and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess how well a group of individuals could process faces. The participants all suffered developmental prosopagnosics; that is, they reported life-long problems in recognizing people and particular difficulties when meeting familiar people unexpectedly. These people were compared with a control group that was matched for age, sex and education level. The aim of the research was to find out how the neural underpinnings of face and body processing in prosopagnosia are changed by emotional information in the face and the body. The participants received a series of tests that assessed their ability to recognize objects and faces, their perception, and their ability to match and memorize faces.

The analysis by De Gelder and colleagues revealed that the developmental prosopagnosia group displayed a similar activation level as the control group in FFA for the emotional faces, but the developmental prosopagnosia also displayed a lower activation in this area for neutral faces. Therefore, there is a higher threshold for the recognition of neutral faces in these prosopagnosics. Neutral faces are believed to be more difficult because these faces are more difficult stimuli than the other categories with which they are usually compared.

Faces that are showing emotion contain an additional feature that provides important communicative information and thus the emotional stimuli trigger a higher level of arousal. The researchers also observed that when prosopagnosics looked at emotional faces, there were high activity levels in the amygdala - the region of the brain that deals with emotional reactions - than when looking at neutral ones.

The authors conclude that: "The results from the present study clearly demonstrate the importance of emotional information in face processing and urge (future imaging) studies to take the modulatory effect of emotion into account, in order to further untangle the complex nature of DP [developmental prosopagnosia]."

Neural Correlates of Perceiving Emotional Faces and Bodies in Developmental Prosopagnosia: An Event-Related fMRI-Study

Van den Stock J, van de Riet WAC, Righart R, de Gelder B

PLoS ONE . 3(9):e3195.


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