What Is Prosopagnosia?

Learn About the Rare Disease Known as Face Blindness

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Think of the faces of those that mean the most to you — your parents, siblings, a significant other, your children. Now imagine waking up one day and not being able to recognize any of them. What sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel is an actual medical condition known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize or distinguish faces.

Why Prosopagnosia Is Known as Face Blindness

Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, may come with difficulties recognizing other things like facial cues and places.

In addition to being unable to identify family members and close friends, people with prosopagnosia may find it difficult to recognize themselves. Those with the condition are thereby forced to develop different ways of identifying people.

Approximately 100 cases of prosopagnosia have been documented worldwide in medical literature. However, scientists at the Prosopagnosia Research Centers of Harvard University and University College London question whether or not the disorder is really that rare. Between the Centers’ research and research from the Institute for Human Genetics in Germany, scientists now believe that the condition is much more common. Both studies suggested around 2-percent of the general public may have some level of prosopagnosia.

There are two types of prosopagnosia, congenital prosopagnosia and acquired prosopagnosia.

Congenital Prosopagnosia

Some people are born without the ability to recognize faces, known as congenital or developmental prosopagnosia.

Children with this type of face blindness may not realize their inability to recognize faces until they are much older. Congenital prosopagnosia is not caused by any structural differences in the brain or brain damage. Some researchers believe that congenital prosopagnosia may be inherited, since the condition tends to run in families.

A German research study from 2005 found evidence of a genetic basis for the disorder after studying seven families affected by prosopagnosia.

Congenital prosopagnosia may also be present in children with autism. An inability to recognize faces may cause or contribute to their impaired social skills.

Acquired Prosopagnosia

Acquired prosopagnosia may occur after brain damage from head injury, stroke, or neurodegenerative diseases. Individuals with this type of prosopagnosia were able to recognize faces in the past. People with this form of the condition are unlikely to gain back their ability to recognize faces.

What Causes Face Blindness

The neurological basis for prosopagnosia is not well understood. One theory is that the condition is the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus of the brain — the part of the brain which coordinates neural systems controlling facial perception and memory. For congenital cases, the cause seems most likely related to genetics

In 2012, doctors at Stanford temporarily implanted electrodes in a patient with prosopagnosia’s brain and discovered two nerve clusters integral in perceiving faces. There is some disagreement in the scientific literature about whether prosopagnosia is a general disorder of recognition or a face-specific problem. It may be that there are different types of prosopagnosia, each with their own set of symptoms.


There are no cures or treatments for prosopagnosia. Those with prosopagnosia must learn other ways of remembering faces. Clues such as hair, voice, and clothes may help identify people. Social situations may be awkward for people with prosopagnosia, causing them to become shy and withdrawn. Therapy can help treat any anxiety or depression related to the condition. Researchers are currently working on ways to help individuals with prosopagnosia improve their face recognition.

- Harvard University. Tests for “face-blindness” reveal disorder may not be so rare. ScienceDaily.com press release dated 5/31/06
- Henke, K., Schweinberger, S. R., Grigo, A., Klos, T., & Sommer, W. (1998). Specificity of face recognition: Recognition of exemplars of non-face objects in prosopagnosia. Cortex, vol. 34, pp. 289-296.
- National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NINDS Prosopagnosia Information Page
- New Scientist.Face blindness runs in families. New Scientist, 26 March 2005.
- Prosopagnosia Research Centers.(2007).
- The Atlantic (2013) Living With Face Blindness

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