What Is Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia is a brain disorder that makes difficult the recognition of persons by their face. Also called face blindness, prosopagnosia comes from prosopon, the Greek word for face, and agnosia, a medical term for lack of recognition. Persons with this condition, called prosopagnosics, often have difficulty recognizing people they see on a regular basis – family members, spouses, close friends, even themselves in a mirror. Relatively mild cases are limited to facial recognition; more serious cases extend the recognition problem to other objects of everyday life. Social isolation and depression are two frequent responses to prosopagnosia.

Prosopagnosia is surprisingly common and while there is no cure for prosopagnosia, individuals that have it often adopt compensatory strategies for identifying the persons with whom they deal. If you or a loved one is having issues with facial recognition, see your Baptist Health medical provider for diagnosis and advice on coping with this condition. 

What Are the Symptoms of Prosopagnosia?

The primary symptom of prosopagnosia is an inability to recognize persons by their faces. This difficulty with facial recognition can manifest in a number of ways:

  • Poor recognition of familiar individuals in person or in photographs
  • An inability to describe faces
  • Confusion regarding plotlines in movies or plays with numerous characters
  • Feelings of disorientation in crowded locations
  • Difficulty distinguishing individuals wearing uniforms or similar articles of clothing
  • Establishment of identities by asking personal questions or by focusing on telltale clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, perfumes, or colognes
  • Refusal to greet individuals by name
  • Avoidance of meeting new people.

There are two chief forms of prosopagnosia: acquired and developmental. Acquired prosopagnosia is the result of some form of brain damage, including that caused by strokes, traumatic head injuries, or neurodegenerative medical conditions. Developmental prosopagnosia is a lifelong condition that first presents in childhood. It is also known as congenital prosopagnosia. Developmental prosopagnosia likely has a genetic root.

What Causes Prosopagnosia?

The origin of face blindness appears to lie in damage to or developmental issues with a portion of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans have linked the fusiform gyrus to human facial recognition more strongly than other regions of the brain involved in visual cognition. The specialized capacity for reading other faces is critical in a highly social species such as humans. This is why prosopagnosia often results in psychological hardship for the people who experience it.  

The congenital version of prosopagnosia tends to run in families, which makes it a potential risk factor. Also currently under debate is the relationship between autism and prosopagnosia. Persons on the autism spectrum are possibly more susceptible to face blindness than persons who are not.

How Is Prosopagnosia Diagnosed?

If you’re having trouble with facial recognition, your physician will likely refer you to a neurologist. He or she will assess your ability to recognize faces, read emotional cues, and determine personal characteristics such as age and sex. Commonly utilized means of doing so include:

  • the Benton Facial Recognition Test,
  • the Warrington Recognition Memory for Faces,
  • the Cambridge Face Perception Test, and
  • the Cambridge Face Memory Test. 

How Is Prosopagnosia Treated?

Prosopagnosia is currently incurable. Treatment focuses on “workarounds” and other coping skills that can assist prosopagnosics in identifying other people without reliance on facial cues. This might include noting a person’s height, build, clothing, accessories, vocal mannerisms, and gait as sources of recognition.

Face blindness can lead to feelings of alienation and depression. Therapy is one option for overcoming the psychological burden that it creates.

Learn More About Prosopagnosia from Baptist Health

Prosopagnosia is a difficult and challenging medical condition. At Baptist Health, we’ll help you face it. If you or a family member is experiencing problems with facial recognition, contact the Baptist Health Neuroscience and Stroke team to schedule an appointment.

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