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Neuroimage. 1999 Mar;9(3):278-89.

Effect of familiarity on the processing of human faces.

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  • 1Laboratory of Neurophysiology, U.C.L., Brussels, Belgium.


Most brain imaging studies on face perception have investigated the processing of unknown faces and addressed mainly the question of specific face processing in the human brain. The goal of this study was to highlight the effects of familiarity on the visual processing of faces. Using [15O]water 3D Positron Emission Tomography, regional cerebral blood flow distribution was measured in 11 human subjects performing an identical task (gender categorization) on both unknown and known faces. Subjects also performed two control tasks (a face recognition task and a visual pattern discrimination task). They were scanned after a training phase using videotapes during which they had been familiarized with and learned to recognize a set of faces. Two major results were obtained. On the one hand, we found bilateral activations of the fusiform gyri in the three face conditions, including the so-called fusiform-face area, a region in the right fusiform gyrus specifically devoted to face processing. This common activation suggests that different cognitive tasks performed on known and unknown faces require the involvement of this fusiform region. On the other hand, specific regional cerebral blood flow changes were related to the processing of known and unknown faces. The left amygdala, a structure involved in implicit learning of visual representations, was activated by the categorization task on unknown faces. The same task on known faces induced a relative decrease of activity in early visual areas. These differences between the two categorization tasks reveal that the human brain processes known and unknown faces differently.

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