University lab looking to crack face blindness

The Yonas Visual Perception Lab is seeking treatments and new methods of diagnosis.
Lab manager Vanessa Adamson and research assistant Ariana VandenHeuvel work on data entry on Thursday at Yonas Lab in Peik Hall.
October 24, 2013

Stephanie Chase used to recognize some of her Valleyfair coworkers by their ponytails. She thought nothing of it until a male coworker had to consistently remind her of who he was.

Then Chase realized something wasn’t right. She then happened upon a description of prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, and she discovered she has the disorder.

People with face blindness have difficulty recognizing faces, sometimes even their own. A team of University researchers is working to find the best methods of diagnoses and treatments for the disorder.

Albert Yonas leads the the Yonas Visual Perception Lab, where Chase is a research assistant.

“Most people don’t know the problem exists; some people grow up to think everybody’s got the problem,” Yonas said. “Some people just have unhappy lives,”

He said about 2 to 2.5 percent of people worldwide have face blindness.

Vanessa Adamson, the Yonas lab’s manager, said the severity of face blindness varies on a case-by-case basis. Someone could forget a face moments after it’s gone or struggle to differentiate any two faces. In extreme cases, she said, someone with face blindness can look at a picture of themselves without recognizing it’s them.

Chase said people sometimes think she’s “snubbing” them when she doesn’t recognize them and she hesitates to tell others about her face blindness.

“I’ll totally remember a conversation I had with them, just not their face,” she said. “I think that’s a hard distinction for people to make, especially at first.”

There are two different types of face blindness, acquired and developed, Yonas said. Generally, those with acquired face blindness have experienced brain damage and lost the ability to recognize familiar faces, he said.

The Yonas Lab is focusing its research on developmental face blindness,
specifically in children.

Developmental face blindness is likely caused by development issues in the region of the brain responsible for face recognition, said University research fellow Kirsten Dalrymple.

“We have machinery in our brains that is allocated for face recognition alone,” she said. “If that machinery doesn’t develop, you’re not going to be able to do that specialized process.”

In the Yonas Lab, researchers test children for face blindness by asking them to memorize what three pictures of faces look like, Dalrymple said.

Researchers then present the children with another set of three faces, one from the previous set, and ask them to identify the face they’ve seen before.

But face blindness is a difficult disorder to identify, even for those who have it, Dalrymple said. Many people with the disorder use cues like hair, skin color and clothes instead of faces to remember people.

Those with developmental face blindness often spend their lives unaware that they have the disorder, Dalrymple said. They think everyone grows up “learning who people are” instead of being able to identify their faces, she said.

There are indications that face blindness is a genetic disorder, Dalrymple said, but it hasn’t been linked to one gene yet.

Brad Duchaine, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, is also researching face blindness, but he focuses on its acquired form.

Duchaine said there are two different stages in face processing — the stage where a face is seen and the stage where it is remembered and identified as a person.

He believes most instances of face blindness are caused by visual perception problems, though this can be difficult to recognize for people with the
disorder, he said.

 “It feels like a memory problem because when you’re looking at a face for the first time, you have no idea what it should be looking like,” Duchaine said. “But then when you fail to recognize it again, it feels like a memory
failure.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Albert Yonas. He has a Ph.D. but isn't a medical doctor.

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