When you see a familiar face, when a bird-watcher catches a glimpse of a rare bird perched on a limb, or when a car-fancier spots a classic auto driving past, the same small region in the brain becomes engaged. For almost two decades, neuroscientists have known that this area, called the fusiform face area (FFA), plays a vital role in the brain's ability to recognize faces and objects that an individual has learned to identify. Now a new study, published online on October 6, 2015 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, has taken this one step farther by finding that the thickness of the cortex in the FFA (as measured using magnetic resonance imaging) can predict a person's ability to recognize faces and objects. The article is titled “Cortical Thickness in Fusiform Face Area Predicts Face and Object Recognition Performance.” "It is the first time we have found a direct relationship between brain structure and visual expertise," said Isabel Gauthier, Ph.D., David K. Wilson Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, who directed the study. "It shows more clearly than ever that this part of the brain is relevant to both face and object recognition abilities." Relationships between cortical thickness and other types of processes, such as motor learning and acquisition of musical skills, have been observed before. The relationship seems relatively straightforward: the process of learning to type faster or play a violin causes the neurons in the relevant area of the cortex to make new connections, which causes the cortex to appear thicker. However, the link between cortical thickness and how well we recognize faces and objects turns out to have a surprising twist.
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