GCU researchers develop test to diagnose problems with face perception

04 February 2016

GCU researchers develop test to diagnose problems with face perception

Prosopagnosia makes it hard - or impossible - to determine age, gender or ethnic background

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) have developed a test to help health care professionals diagnose ‘face blindness’ – when a person struggles to recognise other people.

The Caledonian Face Test uses simplified face images to help optometrists, GPs, psychologists and neurologists identify prosopagnosia, a condition which makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for someone to recognise different faces.

While most people can determine someone’s age, gender, ethnic background and know whether or not that face is familiar after a brief glimpse, as many as 1 in 50 people suffer from face blindness.

Although there is currently no treatment available for prosopagnosia, the new face test will enable healthcare workers to identify people with the condition, allowing supportive strategies to be put in place to help them.

It uses simplified face images, synthesised from photographs of real faces. The patient is shown four simplified faces on a computer and asked to select the odd-one-out. In this way, the test measures the minimum difference between faces that is required for someone to be able to accurately tell them apart. The images can be modified very precisely, enabling the task to be made easier or more difficult to match the ability of individual patients to distinguish between faces. Research found some participants were highly sensitive to small face differences; others required much larger differences for reliable discrimination.

The test has been developed by Professor of Visual Neuroscience Gunter Loffler and Senior Lecturer Dr Gael Gordon, both from GCU, together with Dr Andrew Logan, formerly of GCU and now at the University of Bradford, and Professors Hugh Wilson and Frances Wilkinson from York University, Toronto.

Speaking about the research, Professor Loffler said: “That we are so good at discriminating between faces is actually quite remarkable. After all, to a first approximation, all faces are the same: two eyes, above a nose, above a mouth.

“Our visual system has evolved, however, to be very sensitive to subtle differences between faces and we are extremely accurate at discriminating between faces that are familiar to us. For people with prosopagnosia, this is not the case, and they can experience social embarrassment, social isolation, anxiety and depression as a result of the condition.”

Dr Gordon added: “The Caledonian test is quick to carry out and can be administered multiple times without participants becoming familiar with either the faces or the test order, so is a highly effective training tool as part of a rehabilitative strategy.”

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