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Prosopagnosia

'face blindness'

What is Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia (also known by the lay term ‘face-blindness’) refers to the inability to recognize familiar people by their face. There are two known forms of prosopagnosia: in the acquired form (i.e., acquired prosopagnosia) people have lost the ability to recognize faces after a brain injury; in the congenital form (i.e.,congenital or developmental prosopagnosia) people have never developed the proper ability to recognize faces.


Dr Davide Rivolta and his collaborators in the School of Psychology of the University of East London (UEL) investigate the cognitive and neurophysiological features of typical and atypical (i.e., prosopagnosia) face processing. We use sophisticated neuroimaging techniques that allow to directly monitor and control brain activity. In particular, we investigate the face recognition system in order to advance our theoretical understanding and to develop neuroscience-driven rehabilitative approaches. 


If you think you have face recognition difficulties, and you wish to participate in one of our research projects, please register through the“UEL face-blindness register” (click here). If you wish to have more information on prosopagnosia, please contact Dr Davide Rivolta (d.rivolta@uel.ac.uk).

How frequent is prosopagnosia?

Cases of acquired prosopagnosia are quite rare. However, over the last fifteen years, it has become clear that the congenital form of prosopagnosia is not rare at all, since it can affect around 1 in 50 people (this means approximately 1.5 million people in UK alone).

How do people cope with prosopagnosia?

Some people coexist with prosopagnosia pretty well; they typically develop compensatory strategies such as the ability to recognize people by their hairstyle, gait, voice. Other people, on the contrary, find the condition very frustrating, tend to isolate, and can develop symptoms of anxiety and depression. People with prosopagnosia often report problems in everyday life activities, such as the inability to follow characters in movies; in some people, prosopagnosia is so serious that it can also affect the professional career.


How do we detect prosopagnosia?

There is no standard way do “diagnose” prosopagnosia. Typically, the neuropsychological assessment involves the use of tasks that measure the ability to learn new faces and tasks that measure the recognition of familiar (or famous) faces. There are also self-administered questionnaires that help in the detection of prosopagnosia. 

What are the brain regions affected by prosopagnosia?

Acquired prosopagnosia is often the result of a brain lesion that affects posterior parts of the brain. Albeit congenital prosopagnosia is not characterised by brain lesions, the use of modern neuroimaging techniques has allowed to detect differences in the structure and function of the brain in this condition. For instance, some brain regions involved in face processing show abnormal functioning in people with congenital prosopagnosia.

What are the causes of prosopagnosia?

The cause of acquired prosopagnosia is a brain damage (i.e., stroke or head trauma).

The cause (or causes) of congenital prosopagnosia is less clear, but it appears to have roots in our genes. For instance, twin studies have shown that monozygotic twins are very similar in their face memory skills; much more than dizygotic twins. It has also been demonstrated that congenital prosopagnosia runs in families, and recent preliminary evidence suggests that people with congenital prosopagnosia have genetic variants in the oxytocin receptor gene.