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September 8, 2008 10:49 pm

‘Face blindness’ link to dyslexia probed

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New research using a computer model of the brain is helping to explain a poorly understood neurological condition.

The research, discussed on Monday at the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool, shows that face blindness and dyslexia, once thought to be separate conditions, may actually be closely related.

Many people with prosopagnosia find it difficult to recognise faces, including those of close friends and family members. Other prosopagnosics are unable to recognise facial expressions.

The prevalence of prosopagnosia (face blindness) in the general population is not known. Padraic Monaghan, author of the study and professor of cognition at Lancaster University, said: “There is no diagnostic test for prosopagnosia. Typically people don’t realise they have it and are just aware of experiencing difficulties with social exchange.”

Crucially, the area of the brain used for recognising faces is the mirror image of the region of the brain that shows reduced activity in dyslexics. Recent studies have indicated a possible link, showing that some dyslexics also have difficulties with face recognition.

Professor Monaghan’s research, which has not yet been published, modelled the two hemispheres of the brain. His team systematically changed the model in order to reproduce the symptoms displayed by prosopagnosics and dyslexics. They found a significant overlap between the differences that caused dyslexia-like behaviour and the damage that caused face blindness.

Ashok Jansari, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of East London, works with prosopagnosics. He says it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of the condition in the population, not only because many prosopagnosics are unaware that they are face blind but also because there is, as yet, no clear definition of the condition.

“As with dyslexia many years ago, no one really knows the range or scale of the problem,” said Dr Jansari. “Prosopagnosics may use voices, clothing or even the way someone walks to recognise people. These coping strategies mean that is possible to be a very highly functioning prosopagnosic, in the same way that it is possible to be a highly successful dyslexic.”

Professor Monaghan agreed, saying: “Face blindness becomes a disorder only when it causes you difficulty moving around the world.” He believes that the model opens up new avenues for research into both face blindness and dyslexia.

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