Well here's the final draft of my interview article. I ended up getting a B-, and I must admit that I didn't put in much effort in the re-write. Not my proudest moment, but I'm getting better. We have mid-semester check-ups in a week, so we'll see if my teacher thinks I'm getting any better as well. Here's the article. Up next, another interview article, but of a more personal nature. I'll post the draft when I have one.
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 among the children. She patiently waits for the teacher to bring her daughter over to her.
Her problem? The woman has a condition known as prosopagnosia, meaning she cannot recognize faces. It isn’t that she can’t see faces, there’s nothing wrong with her vision. She just can’t tell if she’s seen that face before or who it belongs to. People with prosopagnosia rely on non-facial cues 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.
While the simple act of recognizing a face is something most people take for granted, up to two percent of the general population suffers from face-blindness also known as prosopagnosia.
Most of us get a lot of information from faces—age, gender, identity, even emotional states. And until recently, studies seemed to show that “there is this dedicated part of the brain that is necessary for face recognition,” says Dr. Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University, a prosopagnosia researcher. This dedicated region of the brain is known as the fusiform face area (FFA).
Since it isn’t feasible to probe a living human brain with electrodes, primates have traditionally served as the model system for studying face recognition in the brain. Because humans and primates are so closely related, the primate visual system is very similar to the human visual system. These studies on primates have shown that the FFA is specifically activated when a monkey is shown a face, supporting the idea that the FFA is a dedicated brain region for face recognition.
However, the development of a new technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to study prosopagnosia and face recognition in humans. Using fMRI, Dr. Behrmann can scan the brains of individuals as they look at different images and record which areas have the highest metabolism.
Initially, Dr. Behrmann had predicted that prosopagnosia patients would have lower metabolism in their FFA when viewing images of faces. Surprisingly, the fMRI scans revealed that the patients had normal metabolism levels in their FFA. This lead Dr. Behrmann to create a new hypothesis; perhaps it was the connections between the FFA and other brain regions that were defective in prosopagnosia patients. Instead of just one brain region being dedicated to face recognition, there could be a dedicated circuitry of brain regions for face recognition.
In fact, when Dr. Behrmann scanned the brains of her prosopagnosia patients she found that they had little to no neural connections between the FFA and other brain regions. Interestingly, she only found this defect in patients that had been born with prosopagnosia. In contrast, patients that had acquired prosopagnosia through brain trauma had normal neural connections but reduced metabolism in their FFA.
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 collaborating with computer scientists to develop ways to help prosopagnosia patients.
One idea she is helping develop would take advantage of facial recognition software. Ideally, a patient could carry around a camera that snaps photos of faces. The software would then compare the photos to a database of faces the patient should know, such as friends and family members. If the photo matched a face in the database, the software could then relay the identity of the person to the patient. Unfortunately there are some obstacles that still need to be overcome before this becomes a viable treatment option for patients. For example, there are privacy issues that come into play when taking images of random people walking down the street.
Despite the hurdles she faces, Dr. Behrmann continues to find new and inventive ways to study prosopagnosia. 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.”
Hopefully new advances in technology and continued study of prosopagnosia patients will provide more information and make the idea of a cure into a reality.