We are graduate students and postdocs working on basic research in the neurosciences at Harvard University. We are excited about neuroscience and hope to convince you - whether you’ve never heard of brains or are a seasoned scientist - that brain research is one of the most fascinating areas of science today.
Not your grandpa’s Golgi
Once you see the old man with a large proboscis, gaping mouth, and questionable hairstyle choices, you can’t un-see it. This is the opposite phenomenon described in the oft referenced Oliver Sacks book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales”. Where in a patient is severely impaired in his ability to recognize faces. This face blindness, called prosopagnosia, is associated with deficits in the fusiform gyrus where the fusiform face area (FFA) is located. The FFA, so named by MIT professor Nancy Kanwisher, is a specialized brain region for facial recognition. In a recent talk hosted by the Harvard Conte Center, Dr. Kanwisher shared a video of a patient with electrode arrays implanted on the ventral surface of his brain, spanning multiple brain regions including the FFA. Electrically stimulating the underlying neurons showed the discreet location and function of the FFA in facial recognition. When this brain region was stimulated while the patient was looking at another person’s face, he reported seeing distortions to the upper half of the face, as if it had morphed into an anime version of the person’s face. When this brain region was stimulated while the patent was looking at inanimate objects such as a box or soccer ball, he described the transient appearance of face-like features. The importance of reading facial expressions in the context of complex social settings is born out in our tendency to see faces where none are present. The perception of the profile of an old man in the picture above is an example of such pareidolia.