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CMU gives 'face-blind' Brad Pitt an invite

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:31 p.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon University researcher Marlene Behrman poses in the brain scaner lab Thursday, May 23, 2013, on the school's campus in Oakland.
Brad Pitt recently told Esquire magazine that he has prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

Imagine picking up your child from school and not knowing whether you strapped the right child into the car seat. Or, waving to a neighbor and then wondering, was it really him?

For about 2 percent of the world's population — and Brad Pitt — this is reality.

Prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” is a disorder that keeps people from recognizing someone else's face or identity.

When Pitt recently told Esquire magazine that he has the disorder, Marlene Behrmann, a prominent prosopagnosia researcher with Carnegie Mellon University, invited the 49-year-old movie star to be tested at the university.

“This is a difficulty that people have in knowing who it is they're looking at,” said Behrmann, a professor and director of Carnegie Mellon's neuroscience lab.

People affected by the disorder can tell they're looking at a face, but struggle to recognize the identity of someone they're talking to — even a family member or person with whom they interact often, she said.

They rely on other clues, such as a person's voice, hairstyle, clothing or height, she said.

In the 1940s, researchers discovered that face blindness exists but thought it resulted from a brain injury, such as a stroke. Only in the past decade did researchers begin to realize that people can be born with the disorder, said Behrmann, who has researched face blindness for about 10 years.

In her lab at Carnegie Mellon, Behrmann tests people who have never suffered a brain injury or been diagnosed with another disorder.

In one test, she shows people photographs of notable figures, such as President Obama and Marilyn Monroe. Those who are face blind usually can't determine who's in the photographs.

“There's been rather little work on the organization of the brain in these individuals,” Behrmann said. “The work that we've been doing here is trying to understand what is typical, what is different about the structure and function of the brain in such individuals.

“There must be something that's different.”

Behrmann has found that the brains of people with face blindness function differently — fibers that connect and send messages to brain lobes have difficulty transferring information.

“It's like the different components of the network are not cooperating,” she said.

At a concert, Ashley Peterson had no idea that a woman she was talking with was her coworker.

“She was wearing biking clothes,” said Peterson, 29, of Lincoln, Neb. “She started talking to me and I had no clue who she was, even though she's someone I work with every day.”

Peterson believes she has face blindness, and plans to travel to Carnegie Mellon to be tested by Behrmann this week.

She said she's had a problem remembering people's faces since she was a child.

“Throughout my life I've come up with different ways of recognizing people” such as through a voice, clothing or hairstyle.

Peterson has no memory or vision problems. She never told a doctor about her problem because didn't think she suffered from a legitimate disorder until she saw a TV program about it.

“I'm definitely not expecting a cure…I want to learn more about the condition so I can tell other people about it so I don't have to feel like a bad person for not recognizing someone,” she said.

Only a small number of scientists and doctors throughout the world are researching the disorder.

Other researchers, such as Brad Du-chaine, an associate professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, consider Behrmann's discoveries to be cutting-edge.

“She's one of the top in her field,” said Duchaine, who works in Dartmouth's department of psychological and brain sciences.

Scientists are a long way from finding a cure. No single drug or “easy fix” is available, Behrmann said.

One remedy may lie in technology.

Carnegie Mellon researchers are developing computerized glasses that could detect what a person looks at through a camera. The glasses could have the capability to tell a face-blind person who he or she is greeting, among other uses, said Bernardo Pires, a postdoctoral researcher on the project for two years.

“Sooner or later, we will have the capability of wearing assisted devices that can help you recognize who you're interacting with,” Pires said.

Christina Gallagher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5637 or cgallagher@tribweb.com.

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