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Originally published August 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 23, 2008 at 1:44 AM

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Scientists find part of brain dedicated to remembering features

Ever wonder why it's so much easier to remember people's faces than their names? Neuroscientists have an explanation. They've identified a pea-size region in the brain that reacts more strongly to faces than it does to cars, dogs, houses or body parts

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Ever wonder why it's so much easier to remember people's faces than their names?

Neuroscientists have an explanation. They've identified a pea-size region in the brain that reacts more strongly to faces than it does to cars, dogs, houses or body parts.

"The evidence is overwhelming that there is a specialized system dedicated to processing faces and not other objects," said Doris Tsao, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

It's called the fusiform face area (FFA), because it vaguely resembles a spindle: "fusus" in Latin. It's about halfway back in the head, near the bottom of the visual cortex, the part of the brain than handles vision.

Most people have two FFAs, one on each side of the head, but the one on the right is dominant, the other a backup.

The FFA system explains "why we are so good at recognizing and remembering faces," Tsao said. "A brief glance at a face conveys a wealth of information about identity, expression, gender, age, mood, intent, attractiveness, social states and even honesty."

Researchers said evolution may explain why humans and other primates developed a chunk of brain tissue dedicated to face recognition: It helped them quickly spot friends and foes. Our ancestors who were better able to distinguish faces tended to survive — and reproduce — better than others.

"The ability to extract this information within a fraction of a second of viewing a face is important for normal social interaction, and has probably played a critical role in the survival of our primate ancestors," said Nancy Kanwisher, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Understanding how face recognition works can have practical applications, Tsao said. Insights into these brain circuits may help prevent or treat depression, autism or social disorders. FFA images also may help scientists understand prosopagnosia, an impairment in the recognition of faces that is also known as face blindness.

Scientists identified the FFA a decade ago by scanning human and monkey brains with a then-new technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When a group of nerve cells, or neurons, is active — such as neurons responsible for vision — blood rushes to that area and it lights up on an fMRI scan.

"Blood flow mimics electrical activity," said Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We use blood flow as a proxy."

In addition to faces, scientists have identified regions of the brain that respond to body parts or to buildings.

"Just by looking at an fMRI, we can tell if a subject is looking at faces or places," Kanwisher said.

FMRI research is valuable, she said, because "it tells us what kinds of minds we have, and that is one of the most fundamental questions I can imagine tackling."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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