CBMM's Kanwisher and Freiwald named Kavli Prize Laureates in Neuroscience

June 12, 2024

Citation from the Committee

Recognizing faces is important for social interaction in many animals. Previous work in human psychology, clinical studies of brain-injured patients, positron emission tomography studies, and isolated face-selective neurons in non-human primates, had suggested the existence of a functionally specialized system for face recognition. However, face recognition had not been localized to any specific area of the brain. The present laureates used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to localize different areas in neocortex specialized for face processing.

Nancy Kanwisher pioneered the establishment of the functional region of interest (fROI) approach to localize the fusiform face area (FFA) in humans using fMRI. Kanwisher was the first to develop and employ a paradigm to identify a region sensitive to faces in each person. This finding strongly supported the idea of modular localization of cognitive function in the neocortex. The use of such functional localizers is now widespread and applied to domains beyond the face recognition system.

Inspired by Kanwisher´s findings, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Tsao together used fMRI to localize similar face patches in macaque monkeys. Having localized these, they recorded from single neurons in each patch. They showed that the overwhelming majority of visually responsive neurons in the largest such region were face-selective. They proceeded to outline a system of multiple face patches, detailing their interconnections and functional specialization. Face recognition in the earliest patches was dependent on viewpoint, but later became viewpoint-independent through a series of processing stages. Winrich Freiwald in further work characterized populations of cells selectively responsive to faces familiar to the viewer. Doris Tsao identified different features of the face that make up a code enabling single cells to identify faces.

Together, the laureates, with their work on neocortical specialization for face recognition, have provided basic principles of neural organization which will further our understanding of recognition of objects and scenes...

Read the full release on the Kavli Prize website using the link below.

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