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Yerkes Researchers Identify Similar Brain Areas Responsible For Recognizing Faces In Humans And Chimpanzees

December 19, 2008

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Emily Rios, 404-727-7732,; Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709,

ATLANTA – In the first study of its kind, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have found chimpanzees recognize faces of other chimpanzees using similar areas of the brain as humans use in facial recognition. The study, available in the December 18th online edition of Current Biology, shows new insight into the cognitive strategies both humans and chimpanzees use to recognize faces.

Lead researcher Lisa Parr, PhD, was familiar with human functional imaging studies that have shown activation in a number of regions that represent a face recognition network, including a region in the brain’s temporal lobe called the fusiform face area (FFA) during facial recognition tasks. After years of studying facial processing in chimpanzees using computer tasks, and showing similar cognitive strategies for facial discrimination as humans, Dr. Parr set out to determine if chimpanzees would show comparable patterns of activity in the brain.

“One of the most important aspects of this study is the opportunity to connect what we have seen in our behavioral studies and computer tasks with something functional in the brain. When working on computerized matching tasks, chimpanzees use a lot of the same cognitive strategies as humans do when discriminating faces. Because of this, we predicted chimpanzees would show facial processing in brain regions similar to humans,” said Parr.

For the study, Parr and her research team showed five chimpanzees faces of other chimpanzees on a computer. Two of the images were of the same face, while one was of a different chimpanzee. All of these faces were unfamiliar to the chimpanzees, and the chimpanzees were to match the similar faces.

After completing the task, researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor chimpanzee brain activity. The imaging studies showed similar activation in chimpanzees and humans in several areas known to be important for face processing. “These similarities suggest the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans may have shared a set of neurocognitive mechanisms to process faces and other stimuli,” said Parr.

Parr and her colleagues plan to study facial recognition in rhesus macaques using the same methods and also will study chimpanzees to look at regions co-activated during emotional processing.

For nearly eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health–funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate, quality animal care.

Within the fields of microbiology and immunology, neuroscience, psychobiology and sensory-motor systems, the center’s research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases, such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease; treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; unlock the secrets of memory; determine behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy; address vision disorders; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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