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Study suggests brain’s ability to recognize faces is shaped through repeated exposure

Scientists have long deemed the ability to recognize faces innate for people and other primates – something our brains just know how to do immediately from birth.

However, the findings of a new Harvard Medical School study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience cast doubt on this longstanding view.

Working with macaques temporarily deprived of seeing faces while growing up, a Harvard Medical School team led by neurobiologists Margaret Livingstone, Michael Arcaro, and Peter Schade has found that regions of the brain that are key to facial recognition form only through experience and are absent in primates who don’t encounter faces while growing up.

The finding, the researchers say, sheds light on a range of neuro-developmental conditions, including those in which people can’t distinguish between different faces or autism, marked by aversion to looking at faces. Most importantly, however, the study underscores the critical formative role of early experiences on normal sensory and cognitive development, the scientists say.

Livingstone, the Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, explains that macaques – a close evolutionary relative to humans, and a model system for studying human brain development – form clusters of neurons responsible for recognizing faces in an area of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus by 200 days of age. The relative location of these brain regions, or patches, are similar across primate species.