What is Prosopagnosia?

man and woman looking at each other on the couch

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Prosopagnosia is a neurological condition that makes it difficult to recognize people's faces. It's also known as face blindness or facial agnosia.

Depending on its severity, it may cause a person to either find it tricky to recognize faces or make it impossible for a person to distinguish one face from another. In some instances, a person might be unable to distinguish between a face and an inanimate object or recognize their face in a mirror.

People with this condition cannot identify the faces of even their closest family and friends. Prosopagnosia falls under an umbrella condition known as agnosias. Agnosias are conditions that affect the way your brain processes sensory information. Some reports estimate that about 2.4% of the global population live with this condition. 

Symptoms of Prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia is characterized by one primary symptom: the inability to recognize faces. However, people with this condition experience this to varying degrees. They also experience it in different ways. Common ways in which prosopagnosia has been seen to manifest include: 

  • Being unable to describe a person's face 
  • Avoiding meeting new people 
  • Being unable to recognize people, even close family, and friends 
  • Confusing characters in a movie or game 
  • Becoming disoriented when in a crowded room 
  • Telling people apart by other characteristics such as the way they smell or walk 

Diagnosis of Prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia is rather challenging to diagnose. If your doctor suspects you have the condition, you'll undergo a series of neurological examinations to confirm the diagnosis. This is typically done after a detailed account of your medical and family history has been taken. Neurological exams that may be done include:

  • Memory tests: This is done to rule out the possibility that some form of memory impairment is causing the symptoms you are experiencing. 
  • Cognitive tests: This test is done to ensure that a cognitive problem is causing your face blindness 
  • Facial recognition test: A facial recognition test not only helps your doctor ascertain that you don't recognize faces but also helps them gauge the severity of your symptoms and what form of the condition you might have. 

Other tests that may be conducted include: 

  • A computerized tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan can help your doctor identify if there is any brain damage or abnormalities. 
  • Genetic testing: Genetic testing can help identify if any DNA mutations run in your family, which could be responsible for the development of the condition. 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI also helps your doctor get a clear picture of what is going on in your brain. 

Causes of Prosopagnosia

It's a little unclear what exactly causes prosopagnosia. What is known is that the condition isn't linked to memory loss or vision impairments. Researchers have identified that the right fusiform gyrus, which is a fold in the brain responsible for memory and facial perception, is impaired in the brains of people with some form of this condition. 

Some research has linked the condition's development to abnormalities or brain damage. This can be caused by traumatic brain injury, stroke, or neurodegenerative diseases. Prosopagnosia can also occur when there is no brain damage or impairment. Congenital prosopagnosia is a form of the condition that can be passed down in families. In such a case, the disorder will be present from birth. 

Prosopagnosia has also been linked to developmental conditions such as Asperger's syndrome and autism. Some people with these conditions could experience face blindness to a certain degree. 

Types of Prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia can be categorized either based on its cause or its symptoms. The two forms of the disorder based on symptoms are: 

  • Associative Prosopagnosia: Here, you'll be able to recognize people's faces or distinguish one person's face from the next no matter how well you know them. 
  • Apperceptive Prosopagnosia: With this form of the disroder, while you can distinguish individual faces, you'll be unable to recognize people's facial expressions. You might also struggle with understanding non-verbal cues. 

On the other hand, when classified according to what triggers its development, prosopagnosia can be categorized into: 

  • Acquired Prosopagnosia: Acquired prosopagnosia is caused by some form of injury to the brain. This can be triggered by neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Brain tumors and traumatic brain injuries have also been known to cause acquired prosopagnosia. Other causes include stroke, carbon monoxide poisoning, seizures, and infections. 
  • Congenital Prosopagnosia: Prosopagnosia can also be inherited if the disorder runs in your family. It's unclear exactly why it occurs; however, some research has linked it to DNA mutations. Researchers have noticed that children can be born with congenital prosopagnosia even with no family history. Suspicions are that such cases are connected to developmental disorders such as autism. However, more research needs to be done in this area to ascertain this. 

Treatment for Prosopagnosia 

There is no known cure for prosopagnosia. The good news is that treatment can help a person with this disorder develop coping strategies. These strategies aim to equip you with tools to recognize people with other features such as their voice or gait.

The drawback with these strategies is that when a person with prosopagnosia is in an unfamiliar environment, they might not always work. In some cases of acquired prosopagnosia, treating the underlying condition may help alleviate symptoms of prosopagnosia. 

Coping with Prosopagnosia

If you weren't born with this condition, you might find coping with prosopagnosia challenging. Sometimes, people don't even realize they have the disorder until they go for a consultation. In many cases of the condition, you can expect to live with it for the rest of your life.

The good news is that the disorder doesn't cause any physical health complications. It can, however, take a toll on your mental health. Many people with prosopagnosia report feeling frustrated, ashamed, anxious, or angry about their condition.

This often causes self-isolation and social anxiety. If you are experiencing any of these signs, it's essential to talk to a healthcare professional who can help you work through your feelings and help you adopt a more positive outlook. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kennerknecht I, Grueter T, Welling B, et al. First report of prevalence of non-syndromic hereditary prosopagnosia (Hpa). Am J Med Genet. 2006;140A(15):1617-1622.

  3. Prosopagnosia Research Center. Understanding Prosopagnosia.
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  6. The University of Western Australia.  Prosopagnosia Research.

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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.