face recognition

Autism therapy can normalize face processing

November, 2012

A small study shows that an intensive program to help young children with autism not only improves cognition and behavior, but can also normalize brain activity for face processing.

The importance of early diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder has been highlighted by a recent study demonstrating the value of an educational program for toddlers with ASD.

The study involved 48 toddlers (18-30 months) diagnosed with autism and age-matched normally developing controls. Those with ASD were randomly assigned to participate in a two-year program called the Early Start Denver Model, or a standard community program.

The ESDM program involved two-hour sessions by trained therapists twice a day, five days every week. Parent training also enabled ESDM strategies to be used during daily activities. The program emphasizes interpersonal exchange, social attention, and shared engagement. It also includes training in face recognition, using individualized booklets of color photos of the faces of four familiar people.

The community program involved evaluation and advice, annual follow-up sessions, programs at Birth-to-Three centers and individual speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and/or applied behavior analysis treatments.

All of those in the ESDM program were still participating at the end of the two years, compared to 88% of the community program participants.

At the end of the program, children were assessed on various cognitive and behavioral measures, as well as brain activity.

Compared with children who participated in the community program, children who received ESDM showed significant improvements in IQ, language, adaptive behavior, and autism diagnosis. Average verbal IQ for the ESDM group was 95 compared to an average 75 for the community group, and 93 vs 80 for nonverbal IQ. These are dramatically large differences, although it must be noted that individual variability was high.

Moreover, for the ESDM group, brain activity in response to faces was similar to that of normally-developing children, while the community group showed the pattern typical of autism (greater activity in response to objects compared to faces). This was associated with improvements in social behavior.

Again, there were significant individual differences. Specifically, 73% of the ESDM group, 53% of the control group, and 29% of the community group, showed a pattern of faster response to faces. (Bear in mind, re the control group, that these children are all still quite young.) It should also be borne in mind that it was difficult to get usable EEG data from many of the children with ASD — these results come from only 60% of the children with ASD.

Nevertheless, the findings are encouraging for parents looking to help their children.

It should also be noted that, although obviously earlier is better, the findings don’t rule out benefits for older children or even adults. Relatively brief targeted training in face recognition has been shown to affect brain activity patterns in adults with ASD.

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Simple training helps infants maintain ability to distinguish other-race faces

July, 2011

New research confirms the role of experience in the other race effect, and shows how easily the problem in discriminating faces belonging to other races might be prevented.

Our common difficulty in recognizing faces that belong to races other than our own (or more specifically, those we have less experience of) is known as the Other Race Effect. Previous research has revealed that six-month-old babies show no signs of this bias, but by nine months, their ability to recognize faces is reduced to those races they see around them.

Now, an intriguing study has looked into whether infants can be trained in such a way that they can maintain the ability to process other-race faces. The study involved 32 six-month-old Caucasian infants, who were shown picture books that contained either Chinese (training group) or Caucasian (control group) faces. There were eight different books, each containing either six female faces or six male faces (with names). Parents were asked to present the pictures in the book to their child for 2–3 minutes every day for 1 week, then every other day for the next week, and then less frequently (approximately once every 6 days) following a fixed schedule of exposures during the 3-month period (equating to approximately 70 minutes of exposure overall).

When tested at nine months, there were significant differences between the two groups that indicated that the group who trained on the Chinese faces had maintained their ability to discriminate Chinese faces, while those who had trained on the Caucasian faces had lost it (specifically, they showed no preference for novel or familiar faces, treating them both the same).

It’s worth noting that the babies generalized from the training pictures, all of which showed the faces in the same “passport photo” type pose, to a different orientation (three-quarter pose) during test trials. This finding indicates that infants were actually learning the face, not simply an image.

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Better reading may mean poorer face recognition

January, 2011

Evidence that illiterates use a brain region involved in reading for face processing to a greater extent than readers do, suggests that reading may have hijacked the network used for object recognition.

An imaging study of 10 illiterates, 22 people who learned to read as adults and 31 who did so as children, has confirmed that the visual word form area (involved in linking sounds with written symbols) showed more activation in better readers, although everyone had similar levels of activation in that area when listening to spoken sentences. More importantly, it also revealed that this area was much less active among the better readers when they were looking at pictures of faces.

Other changes in activation patterns were also evident (for example, readers showed greater activation in the planum temporal in response to spoken speech), and most of the changes occurred even among those who acquired literacy in adulthood — showing that the brain re-structuring doesn’t depend on a particular time-window.

The finding of competition between face and word processing is consistent with the researcher’s theory that reading may have hijacked a neural network used to help us visually track animals, and raises the intriguing possibility that our face-perception abilities suffer in proportion to our reading skills.

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Inner-face advantage in familiar face recognition

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Campbell, Ruth, Coleman, Michael, Walker, Jane, Benson, Philip J., Wallace, Simon, Michelotti, Joanne & Baron-Cohen, Simon. 1999. When does the inner-face advantage in familiar face recognition arise and why? Visual Cognition, 6(2), 197-216.

  • Adults tend to use inner features (eyes, nose, mouth) to recognize familiar faces.
  • Children tend to use outer features (hair, hairline, jaw, ears) to recognize people they know.
  • The shift from outer to inner features does not occur until the child is 10-11 years old, and may not be reliable until mid-adolescence (14-15).
  • The shift appears to reflect developmental changes in perception rather than simply being an effect of practice.

Although we initially tend to pay attention to obvious features such as hair, it has been long established that familiar faces are recognized better from their inner (eyes, nose, mouth) rather than their outer (hair, hairline, jaw, ears) parts1. Studies have shown that this advantage of inner features does not occur in children until they’re around 10—11 years old. Children younger than this tend to use outer features to recognize people they know2.

Studies investigating the inner-face advantage have used photographs in which parts of faces have been cropped. This may be confusing to young children. It was thought that inner-face processing would be facilitated if blurring was used instead. Accordingly, in this study photographs in which either the inner face or the outer features are blurred were used.

Although it was thought that this would encourage inner-face processing, children seemed to find it harder. Extending the experiment to adolescents, it was found that the inner-face advantage typical of adults, did not appear until 14—15 years of age. A further experiment with learning-disabled adolescents, with a mental age of 5—8 years, found no shift to inner-face processing. This suggests that the shift to inner-face processing is a developmental change, rather than simply reflecting a need to gain sufficient experience in face-processing.

References

1. Ellis, H.D., Shepherd, J.W. & Davies, G.M. 1979. Identification of familiar and unfamiliar faces from internal and external features: Some implications for theories of face recognition. Perception, 8, 431-439.

2. Campbell, R. & Tuck, M. 1995. Children’s recognition of inner and outer face-features of famous faces. Perception, 24, 451-456.

Campbell, R., Walker, J. & Baron-Cohen, S. 1995. The use of internal and external face features in the development of familiar face identification. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59, 196-210.

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