Tuesday, February 15, 2011

First Interview Assignment

A few weeks ago, Dr. Marlene Behrmann gave a talk to my Science Writing class. We were then allowed to ask her questions and had to write an interview article on her. Below is my first draft of my article. I wrote this in about 3 hours and turned it in at 12:30AM when it had been due at midnight. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to still get a C+ on it. Not my ideal grade, but way better than I thought I would get. I'll definitely be putting more effort in on the rewrite.

Here's the draft:

A woman drops her daughter off in the morning at day care. The daughter happens to spill some paint on her clothes during playtime, so the teacher tells her to change her shirt. At the end of the day, the woman returns to pick up her daughter but cannot find her amongst the children. She patiently waits for the teacher to bring her daughter over to her. This woman has a condition known as prosopagnosia, meaning she cannot recognize faces. People with prosopagnosia rely on non-facial queues to identify people, such as clothing or voice. When the daughter changed her clothes, her mother no longer had a visual clue to identify her daughter. She was forced to rely on the honesty of the teacher to retrieve her daughter. The simple act of recognizing a face is something most people take for granted, but in reality, approximately two percent of the general population suffers from face-blindness known as prosopagnosia.

The discovery of face-blindness has contributed to the belief that the face is special. A lot of information, such as age, gender, identity, even emotional state, can be discerned from just a face. “[A] number of results in literature . . . have forced researchers to go along with [the] claim that there is this dedicated part of the brain that is necessary for face recognition,” says Dr. Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University, a researcher of prosopagnosia.

This idea that there is a dedicated brain region for face recognition makes studying prosopagnosia a useful way to gain insight into how brain activity correlates with human behavior. For instance, when a person sees a face, their brain interprets that image and connects it to an identity. Since someone with prosopagnosia cannot make that connection, understanding the dysfunctions in their brain will provide information on how the brain works and what brain regions are involved in face recognition.

Primates have traditionally served as the model system for studying face recognition in the brain since the primate visual system is very similar to the human visual system. Also, it is possible to do certain experiments on a monkey that aren’t feasible to do on a human, such as single cell studies by probing brain cells with an electrode. These studies have provided important information that correlates with human data, but recent advances allow for a more in depth study of the human brain.

Dr. Berhmann’s lab takes advantage of one such new technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study prosopagnosia and face recognition in humans. Prior to the availability of this technology, information on human brains could only be obtained in post-mortem autopsy. Through the use of fMRI, Dr. Behrmann obtains live brain scans of individuals as they look at different images. These brain scans provide information on which areas of the brain have increased metabolism, which is an indication that the brain is more active in that particular area.

By comparing the scans of prosopagnosia patients with control patients, Dr. Behrmann has identified a circuit of areas in the brain that are co-activated when viewing a face. Contrary to a previous hypothesis, she sees that prosopagnosia patients have equivalent brain activity to control patients, but lack connections between the different brain areas. In other words, it appears that prosopagnosia patients can draw all the dots, but not the lines to connect them.

Although these studies are providing new and important insights into the inner working of prosopagnosia, a cure is still far on the horizon. In the meantime, Dr. Behrmann is working on collaborations with computer scientists to develop ways to aide prosopagnosia patients via a sort of prosthesis in lieu of a physical treatment. One idea in development takes advantage of facial recognition software. Ideally, a patient could carry around a camera that snaps photos of faces, the software would then run the face through its database and relay the identity of the person to the patient. Unfortunately there are several privacy issues that come into play when taking images of random people walking down the street.

Despite the hurdles being faced, prosopagnosia research is moving forward. Dr. Behrmann continues to find new and inventive ways to study and attack this issue. And she is the first to admit that “this literature is burning hot in controversy . . .people are tearing their hair out . . . trying to understand what is the relationship between brain and behavior, [and] what is the best way to think about this mapping between stimuli and the underlying neural circuit.”

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