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'Grandmother Neurons' Are How We Identify Familiar Faces, New Discovery Shows

gif showing the location of the "grandmother neuron"
courtesy of Winrich Freiwald
Rockefeller University
A 3D image of the brain with neurons lighting up in the temporal pole, the seat of recognition of familiar faces.

Scientists have found that our brains contain what’s called ‘grandmother neurons,’ which light up when we see a familiar face, like grandmother’s face.

The discovery was made using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that showed a select set of neurons located in the temporal pole of rhesus monkeys lit up each time the monkeys saw photos of their buddies, both monkey and human. The process could help explain how the brain identifies personally familiar faces, and what it could mean in our understanding of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Autism.


  • Winrich Freiwald - Head of the Laboratory of Neural Systems at Rockefeller University. Credited for the discovery of the ‘grandmother neurons.’
  • Dr. Robert Keder - Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician at Connecticut Children's, and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Connecticut
  • Brad Duchaine - Chair, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, and co-founder of faceblind.org
  • A.E. Gaupp - West Hartford attorney with prosopagnosia, or face blindness

Cat Pastor contributed to this show.

Sujata reports for the WNPR News business desk. Her features range from small business, entrepreneurship, innovation and microfinance to local impact of quantitative easing and changing trendsin global markets. She’s reported from abroad for WNPR and helped develop a segment on jobs and economic recovery, part of the business coverage.
Lucy is the Executive Producer and Host of WNPR's popular talk show, Where We Live.