Tomorrow's Health, Today's Research

Jim Tanaka

Professor, Department of Psychology
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Phone: (250) 721-7541
Department Page
Research area: visual expertise, face recognition, and autism
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Research Profile:

Teaching kids with autism to become face experts

Problems with face recognition were made famous by Oliver Sacks in his popular book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. In the book, Sacks describes a music professor who, after suffering brain damage, was unable to recognize pictures of familiar people, including his students, his family, and even photographs of himself. Recent research has shown that a growing number of people, including many people with autism, suffer from this deficit, which is commonly referred to as "face blindness." At UVic, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jim Tanaka thinks that people with face blindness lack a kind of perceptual expertise necessary for face recognition.

Tanaka first saw the connection between face recognition and perceptual expertise in graduate school; several of his friends were avid birdwatchers, and he couldn't help but notice that, in a blink of an eye, his buddies could identify the subtle differences between a Townsend's and a yellow-rumped warbler. Birders are not alone in their perceptual prowess; countless groups of enthusiasts, from dog judges to train spotters, display a similar perceptual acuity. Tanaka believes that this type of object expertise is not so different from everyday face recognition. All faces are similar to one another, in that they contain the same features of two eyes, a nose and a mouth, arranged in a common configuration. Yet, as face experts, we can effortlessly discern the difference between the face of our spouse, the face of our best friend and the face of our boss (a good thing for our social survival!).

The neural mechanisms mediating the perceptual expertise of dogs and birds are similar to the neural processes of face recognition. While measuring Event Related Potentials (ERPs), which are averages of electrical brain activity measured at the scalp, Tanaka presented pictures of common birds and dogs to expert birdwatchers and dog judges. He found that in a split second — 170 milliseconds, to be precise, experts showed increased neural activity to objects from their respective domains of expertise. For example, when bird experts see pictures of common birds, such as robins and sparrows, there is a spike in neural activity, whereas dog judges show the same spike in neural activity to pictures of beagles and collies. Importantly, this is the same brain activity that is elicited when people look at faces, and it is assumed to be generated by a brain area known as the fusiform gyrus (interestingly, it seems to be engaged only when a person is viewing objects, like faces, dogs, or birds, in which they have specific expertise). Tanaka and colleagues have shown that the fusiform gyrus is amendable to the effects of training and practice. After two weeks of intensive training in bird recognition, the same neural responses seen in birdwatchers were produced in the brains of undergraduate students.

However, this leaves open the question of whether face recognition can be trained in the laboratory, like other forms of perceptual expertise. The answer has profound implications for children with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a childhood neurological disorder whose signs can appear as early as eighteen months of age. Children with autism are delayed in their language skills, and experience problems interacting socially with family and peers. If a child with autism has difficulties recognizing the identity and expression of a face, it is not surprising that they would experience problems in their everyday social interactions.

As it turns out, face blindness in autism is not due to damage to the fusiform gyrus. Tanaka's collaborator, Dr. Bob Schultz, formerly of Yale Child Study Centre and now at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, showed that when kids with autism see a face, the fusiform gyrus is not activated. But that doesn't mean their fusiform gyri aren't working. In fact, kids with autism seem to be inordinately good at distinguishing ordinary objects, like washing machine brands or obscure trading cards. Moreover, when they see an object of obsession, the fusiform gyrus is activated. "This is important because it is not some organic dysfunction of the fusiform gyrus; it is just that faces don't engage the fusiform gyrus. So maybe we can engage the fusiform gyrus by training up their face recognition skills," reasoned Tanaka.

As a first step toward face training, Tanaka and collaborators at Yale University developed the Let's Face It! program. Let's Face It! is a computer-based curriculum whose goal is to teach cognitive and socials skills in face recognition to children with autism. Each game in the Let's Face It! program is intended to teach a particular face processing skill, such as the perception of eye gaze, recognition of facial identity, or the understanding of facial expressions. The program was recently tested in a randomized clinical trial, where forty-five children with ASD were randomly assigned to an active treatment group, and thirty-nine children to a wait-list control group. The treatment group played the Let's Face It! program over a several-month period, and it was found that children with autism who played the Let's Face It! games for 20 hours performed better on face recognition tasks than children in the control group. As a cost-effective treatment, Let's Face It! shows promise as an intervention by improving face processing skills in individuals with ASD. The program can be downloaded at no charge from Tanaka's site.