Face-specific brain area responds to faces even in people born blind [MIT News]

Image and sumamry courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News
August 26, 2020

Study finds that the fusiform face area is active when blind people touch 3D models of faces.

by Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

More than 20 years ago, neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher and others discovered that a small section of the brain located near the base of the skull responds much more strongly to faces than to other objects we see. This area, known as the fusiform face area, is believed to be specialized for identifying faces.

Now, in a surprising new finding, Kanwisher and her colleagues have shown that this same region also becomes active in people who have been blind since birth, when they touch a three-dimensional model of a face with their hands. The finding suggests that this area does not require visual experience to develop a preference for faces.

“That doesn’t mean that visual input doesn’t play a role in sighted subjects — it probably does,” she says. “What we showed here is that visual input is not necessary to develop this particular patch, in the same location, with the same selectivity for faces. That was pretty astonishing.”

Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the study. N. Apurva Ratan Murty, an MIT postdoc, is the lead author of the study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other authors of the paper include Santani Teng, a former MIT postdoc; Aude Oliva, a senior research scientist, co-director of the MIT Quest for Intelligence, and MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab; and David Beeler and Anna Mynick, both former lab technicians.


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