Neural correlates of processing facial identity based on features versus their spacing
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Adults' expertise in recognizing facial identity involves encoding subtle differences among faces in the shape of individual facial features (featural processing) and in the spacing among features (a type of configural processing called sensitivity to second-order relations). We used fMRI to investigate the neural mechanisms that differentiate these two types of processing. Participants made same/different judgments about pairs of faces that differed only in the shape of the eyes and mouth, with minimal differences in spacing (featural blocks), or pairs of faces that had identical features but differed in the positions of those features (spacing blocks). From a localizer scan with faces, objects, and houses, we identified regions with comparatively more activity for faces, including the fusiform face area (FFA) in the right fusiform gyrus, other extrastriate regions, and prefrontal cortices. Contrasts between the featural and spacing conditions revealed distributed patterns of activity differentiating the two conditions. A region of the right fusiform gyrus (near but not overlapping the localized FFA) showed greater activity during the spacing task, along with multiple areas of right frontal cortex, whereas left prefrontal activity increased for featural processing. These patterns of activity were not related to differences in performance between the two tasks. The results indicate that the processing of facial features is distinct from the processing of second-order relations in faces, and that these functions are mediated by separate and lateralized networks involving the right fusiform gyrus, although the FFA as defined from a localizer scan is not differentially involved.
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