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Brain's facial recognition area grows in adulthood

Our ability to recognize faces improves from infancy to adulthood. Facial recognition grows a part of our brain to record specific facial features to our visual system.

Researchers tested face memory and place recognition in children and adults while scanning the specific brain regions related to those two skills. They therefore captured the anatomical changes occurring simultaneously with these functional changes in related areas of the brain. Some regions of the high-level visual cortex showed profound developmental maturation, whereas other brain regions remained stable or unchanged. Improvements in face recognition, therefore, involve structural and functional changes in the brain.

These results are surprising, as brain development is largely thought to involve pruning of brain synapses, rather than their growth. Study results appeared in the journal Science.

Seeking to better understand brain activity behind facial recognition, Jesse Gomez PhD, with the Neurosciences Program at Stanford University School of Medicine, used quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (qMRI) to compare brain tissue between individuals.

In 22 children and 25 adults, the multi-national researchers compared recognition results with qMRI data corresponding to the respective brain regions.

Intriguingly, the region of the brain that helps people recognize faces was found to increase in relative size in adults, while the region that helps people recognize places, stayed the same. These results were confirmed in postmortem analysis of adult brains.

Animal modeling suggests that changes in myelination, the fatty white "insulation" that surrounds axons of some nerve cells, is insufficient to explain the brain region expansion. The authors therefore propose it may be caused by an overall increase in cell bodies, dendritic structures, as well as the increases in the myelin sheath.

How does cortical tissue change as brain function and behavior improve from childhood to adulthood? By combining quantitative and functional magnetic resonance imaging in children and adults, we find differential development of high-level visual areas that are involved in face and place recognition. Development of face-selective regions, but not place-selective regions, is dominated by microstructural proliferation. This tissue development is correlated with specific increases in functional selectivity to faces, as well as improvements in face recognition, and ultimately leads to differentiated tissue properties between face- and place-selective regions in adulthood, which we validate with postmortem cytoarchitectonic measurements. These data suggest a new model by which emergent brain function and behavior result from cortical tissue proliferation rather than from pruning exclusively.

Article authors
Jesse Gomez, Neurosciences Program, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA; Michael A. Barnett, Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA; Vaidehi Natu, Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA; Aviv Mezer, Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel; Nicola Palomero-Gallagher, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1), Research Centre Jülich, Jülich, Germany; Kevin S. Weiner, Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA; Katrin Amunts, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1), Research Centre Jülich, Jülich, Germany, Cécile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany and JARA-BRAIN Research Division, Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA), Jülich, Germany; Karl Zilles, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1), Research Centre Jülich, Jülich, Germany, JARA-BRAIN Research Division, Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA), Jülich, Germany and Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany; Kalanit Grill-Spector, Neurosciences Program, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA, Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA, Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA and corresponding author.
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Jan 9, 2017   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News   News Archive   

Researcher shows a child images of his brain just taken on the MRI machine.
Image Credit: Jesse Gomez and Kalanit Grill-Spector at the Vision and Perception Neuroscience Lab



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