Prosopagnosia: Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that over two percent of the population is affected by prosopagnosia? Learn more about prosopagnosia, its causes, and treatment options, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Prosopagnosia?

Tom is a 55-year-old school teacher who is preparing for retirement. Ever since his first stroke two years ago, Tom has had a new outlook on life. He spends as much time as he can with his family, visits his grandchildren every weekend, and takes Latin dance classes to stay active. Tom's health had significantly improved over the past year, so he was surprised when he had another stroke eighteen months after his first. Unlike the initial stroke, which produced no lasting damage, Tom's second stroke caused significant brain damage, and he noticed that he could no longer recognize faces. Tom was later diagnosed with prosopagnosia.

People with prosopagnosia are unable to recognize faces, though their intellect, vision and ability to recognize other objects are not affected. For this reason, it is also known as face blindness. Prosopagnosia interferes with the ability to recognize both new faces and familiar faces (i.e., friends and relatives), as well as the capacity to judge age or gender by one's face. Many people also report problems with other aspects of face-processing that require reading facial cues, like picking up on emotional expressions or determining where a person is looking.

While prosopagnosia is not believed to be caused by memory problems or learning disabilities, it is common among people with autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer's disease. It has been estimated that around 2.5% of the population has prosopagnosia.

What Causes Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia can become apparent in early childhood. People with this form of prosopagnosia, referred to as developmental prosopagnosia or congenital prosopagnosia, do not suffer from brain damage. Instead, they never developed the capacity to distinguish faces. Developmental prosopagnosia is a life-long condition and is the most common type of prosopagnosia. Research suggests that genetics play a role in developmental prosopagnosia.

Though rare, prosopagnosia can be caused by brain damage, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia. It is important to note that prior to the brain damage, a person's ability to recognize faces is intact. It is not until afterward that prosopagnosia develops. Conditions that can cause the brain damage associated with acquired prosopagnosia include trauma, neurodegenerative disorders, and, in cases like Tom's, stroke.

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