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

courtesy of Winrich Freiwald

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 that originally aired on July 19, 2021.

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. She’s been a public radio journalist for more than 20 years covering everything from education to immigration, juvenile justice and child welfare issues to veterans' affairs and the military.