The 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 as a result. “That’s why I stay home,” he said.
The Times spoke to 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, vision impairment 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, behavioral neurologist at Northwestern Medicine. It is not the same as forgetfulness or sometimes struggling to find the right word.
Prosopagnosia varies in severity; some people with the condition may have trouble recognizing a familiar face, like a friend or family member, while others may not even be able to identify their own reflections. Some people may be unable to differentiate between faces and objects.
There’s also evidence that suggests people with prosopagnosia may become chronically anxious or depressed because of the isolation and fear that come with the condition. Navigating basic social interactions with prosopagnosia can become fraught, and some people avoid contact with family members and other loved ones out of fear that they will not be able to properly recognize or address them.
What causes prosopagnosia?
People with prosopagnosia tend to fall into two categories: those who are born with the condition, and those who acquire it later on in life.
Research suggests that congenital, or lifelong, prosopagnosia is less common, although estimates show that as many as one in every 50 people may struggle with lifelong some form of the condition, and scientists theorize that it may run in families.
“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious structural abnormality” in the brain for those born with the condition, said Dr. Andrey Stojic, director of general neurology at the Cleveland Clinic. Because there aren’t clear brain lesions in people with congenital prosopagnosia, scientists aren’t sure what causes it.
People who acquire prosopagnosia later in life, by contrast, may have lesions in the brain as a result of a head injury or trauma. People can also acquire the condition after strokes or as they develop Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Bonakdarpour said.
Is there a treatment for prosopagnosia?
There is no treatment for the condition, Dr. Bonakdarpour said, but there are ways to manage it. People with prosopagnosia often focus on features like hair color, walking style or voices to tell people apart.
Neurologists typically 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 take pains to assure a patient’s face blindness is not a symptom of a wider degenerative neurological condition.
Many people with the condition, like Mr. Pitt, will not end up with a formal diagnosis. “Many of the challenges he’s describing, the problems he has, are not atypical for folks who experience it,” Dr. Stojic said.
“It be can relatively debilitating for people,” he added. “It’s hard for other people to understand.”