Actor Brad Pitt said in a recent interview that he has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological disorder commonly referred to as face blindness. While Mr Pitt, 58, has never been formally diagnosed with the condition, he said in an interview with GQ that he had struggled for years to recognize people’s faces.
In 2013, he told Esquire that his inability to recognize people’s faces had become so severe that he often wanted to isolate himself. “That’s why I’m staying at home,” he said.
The Times spoke with experts about the symptoms and causes of the condition and treatments for it.
What are the symptoms of prosopagnosia?
The condition is not related to memory loss, low vision or learning disabilities, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Prosopagnosia is only face blindness, not color blindness or overall visual impairment, said Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour, a behavioral neurologist at Northwestern Medicine. It is not the same as forgetfulness or sometimes difficulty finding the right word.
Prosopagnosia varies in severity; some people with the condition may have trouble recognizing a familiar face, such as a friend or relative, while others may not even be able to identify their own reflections. Some people may not be able to distinguish between faces and objects.
There is also some evidence that people with prosopagnosia may become chronically anxious or depressed because of the isolation and anxiety associated with the condition. Navigating basic social interactions with prosopagnosia can be fraught, and some people avoid contact with family members and other loved ones for fear that they will not be able to recognize or address them properly.
What causes prosopagnosia?
People with prosopagnosia tend to fall into two categories: those who are born with the condition and those who get it later in life.
Research suggests that congenital or lifelong prosopagnosia is less common, although estimates show that as many as one in 50 people may struggle with a lifelong form of the condition, and scientists theorize it may run in families.
“There doesn’t seem to be an obvious structural abnormality” in the brain for those born with the condition, said Dr. Andrey Stojic, Cleveland Clinic director of general neurology. Because there are no obvious brain lesions in people with congenital prosopagnosia, scientists don’t know what causes it.
In contrast, people who develop prosopagnosia later in life may have lesions in the brain as a result of a head injury or trauma. People can also get the condition after a stroke or if they develop Alzheimer’s disease, said Dr. Bonakdarpour.
Is there a treatment for prosopagnosia?
There is no treatment for the condition, said Dr. Bonakdarpour, but there are ways to deal with it. People with prosopagnosia often focus on characteristics such as hair color, walking style, or voices to tell people apart.
Neurologists usually diagnose prosopagnosia through a series of tests to assess a person’s ability to remember and recognize faces. It can be a lengthy process, as doctors often go to great lengths to assure that a patient’s face blindness is not a symptom of a broader degenerative neurological condition.
Many people with the condition, such as Mr. Pitt, will not receive a formal diagnosis. “Many of the challenges he describes, the problems he has, are not atypical for people who experience it,” said Dr. stojic.
“It can be relatively debilitating for people,” he added. “It’s hard for other people to understand.”