Can't Identify People? New Test Hopes to Help 'Face-Blind'

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Prosopagnosia via Shutterstock Prosopagnosia via Shutterstock

Imagine going to a family get-together and seeing the same face on both your mom and your second cousin. Or not being able to recognize either one of them. Welcome to the world of the face-blind.

Those who are face-blind, or prosopagnosic, have great trouble identifying others' faces and they'll attempt to make up for this deficiency in other ways, such as by concentrating on someone's voice, or smell. But those afflicted with the condition also suffer in another way, in that people they come into contact with perceive they are the subject of a form of rudeness or snobbery. This can make social interactions awkward or difficult. Take it from Brad Pitt.

So many people hate me because they think I m disrespecting them, the actor told Esquire magazine. But it s a mystery to me, man. I can t grasp a face, and yet I come from such a design/aesthetic point of view. I am going to get it tested for the condition.

Soon after Pitt did get tested at Carnegie Mellon University's state-of-the-art facilities, where he was diagnosed with face-blindness.

How prevalent is this condition? One report from 2006 suggests that 3 percent of the global population suffers from face-blindness, yet many remain undiagnosed.

Enter Dr. Andrew Logan, lecturer at the University of Bradford's School of Optometry and Vision Science. Last month, Logan and his colleagues developed a new face blindness test that may solve this problem.

The new test has produced noticeably different results in diagnosing lifelong face-blind subjects. Thus, it may just provide confirmation to many lifelong, undiagnosed sufferers about their inability to recognize those who they come into contact with. Researchers are also hoping the new test can also provide diagnoses for the undiagnosed autistic. In addition, Dr. Logan says his new test is much quicker than older tests, "making it suitable for clinicians to use."

Past face-blindness tests, like the Benton Facial Recognition Test and the later Cambridge Face Memory Test, both ask patients to identify one target face out of a number of others. But these are several other tests fail to give consistently correct diagnoses.

Some existing tests are unable to measure the whole spectrum of face perception ability," Dr. Logan says. "In addition, some tests don t exclude the possibility of other visual or cognitive problems, like poor memory."

Studies have found a strong link between developmental prosopagnosia and autism. A 2003 review in Behavioral Neurology titled "Developmental prosopagnosia: A review" provides two possible explanations:

  1. "cases of DP could resemble a very mild expression of an autistic disorder that manifests itself solely in face recognition deficits.
  2. Second, subjects with autistic symptoms form a subgroup among cases of DP reported here."

Diagnosed autism cases have doubled in the past decade. According to the CDC, autism now affects one in 45 people. This is due to many factors, including an ever-expanding diagnosis criteria and increasingly accurate diagnostic tests.

Not all face-blind people are considered autistic, as shown by Mr. Pitt. Conversely, according to a 2004 study, as many as two-thirds of autistic individuals may suffer from face-blindness.