‘Facial blindness’ studied in large-scale research project

PICTURE POSED BY MODEL Generic stock photo of a child using a laptop computer.
PICTURE POSED BY MODEL Generic stock photo of a child using a laptop computer.

The largest-ever research project into the treatment of people with so-called “face blindness” has been launched.

Scientists at the University of Stirling are embarking on a three-year study into developmental prosopagnosia, which impairs a person’s ability to recognise familiar faces.

Previous investigations have explored the issue in groups of adults or in individual children, however this will be the largest to develop and test training interventions in youngsters with facial recognition difficulties.

It is known that face recognition abilities vary widely between individuals – some are ‘super recognisers’ who rarely forget a face, but at the other end of the spectrum between two and four children in every 100 have difficulties with face recognition.

Judith Lowes, who is leading the study, said: “Developmental prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is surprisingly common, affecting an estimated 300,000 children in the UK.

“It is unrelated to vision, intelligence and memory – but those affected by it can have severe, lifelong problems recognising familiar faces.

“In some cases, people cannot recognise their immediate family, or even their own reflection. It can cause difficulties in making friends, and could pose a risk to children if they mistake a stranger for someone they know.

“Despite being common, developmental prosopagnosia is relatively unknown – even among health professionals – and the NHS only recognised it as a condition in 2014.

“Little is known about its causes or whether children with it can be helped.”

Experts believe the condition is partly caused when the visual mechanisms for face processing fail to develop.

It is specific to faces – suggesting there is not a more general visual problem, for example when distinguishing objects from one another.

The issue varies in severity from person to person.

Those with the condition report profound negative psychosocial consequences, including anxiety, embarrassment and social isolation.

Frankie Respinger, 24, from Edinburgh, only suspected at the age of 17 that she was living with development prosopagnosia.

She said: “I attended a university open day and couldn’t decide if I recognised a girl from my school.

“It was only later I realised that I had two classes with her every week – and I actually sat next to her in one of them.

“When I told people about it, their responses of amusement and disbelief opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn’t normal – and that we didn’t all see things the same.”

She added it can take approximately five to 10 meetings before she can start to recognise a person by their face.

Ms Lowes is seeking children aged between seven and 17 to take part in the online study

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