A fast link between face perception and memory in the temporal pole

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Science  30 Jul 2021:
Vol. 373, Issue 6554, pp. 581-585
DOI: 10.1126/science.abi6671

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What makes familiar faces so special?

Explicit semantic information in the brain is generated by gradually stripping off the specific context in which the item is embedded. A particularly striking example of such explicit representations are face-specific neurons. Landi et al. report the properties of neurons in a small region of the monkey anterior temporal cortex that respond to the sight of familiar faces. These cells respond to the internal features of familiar faces but not unknown faces. Some of these responses are very highly selective, reliably responding to only one face out of a vast number of other stimuli. These findings will advance our understanding about where and how semantic memories are stored in the brain.

Science, abi6671, this issue p. 581


The question of how the brain recognizes the faces of familiar individuals has been important throughout the history of neuroscience. Cells linking visual processing to person memory have been proposed but not found. Here, we report the discovery of such cells through recordings from an area in the macaque temporal pole identified with functional magnetic resonance imaging. These cells responded to faces that were personally familiar. They responded nonlinearly to stepwise changes in face visibility and detail and holistically to face parts, reflecting key signatures of familiar face recognition. They discriminated between familiar identities, as fast as a general face identity area. The discovery of these cells establishes a new pathway for the fast recognition of familiar individuals.

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