Bond villains, neurosurgery and facial recognition

Bond villains, neurosurgery and facial recognition

A recent article published in Nature asks whether we should trust a Bond villain to conduct accurate neurosurgery. The answer is an unsurprising and resounding "no," but the neuroscience behind the scenes is fascinating.

Despite Blofeld's heavy-handed approach, he clearly knows something about the science of facial recognition.

The new James Bond movie - Spectre - recently opened its doors to much applause. It took a staggering $80.4 million in its opening week.

But, before we pat the media juggernauts on the back, we should check the science.

Hollywood never claimed to be a bastion of scientific thought, but sometimes it is worth poking holes, especially if it makes for an interesting read.

Neurosurgeon and scientist Dr. Michael Cusimano, of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, Canada, watched the recent movie and felt an urge to make a correction. His commentary slams Hollywood's grasp of functional neuroscience.

The scene that piqued Dr. Cusimano's interest involves 007's long-time adversary - Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Bond is in a tight spot; the suave British agent is strapped down as Blofeld plans a bit of disruptive neurosurgery.

007's impromptu neurosurgery

Blofeld has his surgical implement aimed squarely at Bond's head, promising to destroy his lateral fusiform gyrus in an attempt to erase Bond's memories of specific faces.

Although the destruction of facial memories seems fanciful, as we will find out, there is some science behind it. However, Blofeld's aim was way off, as Dr. Cusimano explains:

Although the filmmakers identified the correct part of the brain thought to be involved in the recognition of faces, the placement of the drill was incorrect.

The lateral fusiform gyrus is located in the temporal area just in front of the left ear; however Blofeld aimed the drill just below and behind the left ear, where the vertebral artery and bones of the neck are located.

In terms of today's precision brain surgery, the villain was nowhere near the brain."

According to the real-life neurosurgeon, Blofeld's drill would have, more than likely, killed the agent through a stroke or catastrophic hemorrhage.

The science behind facial recognition

Movies aside, the neuroscience behind facial recognition is a fascinating area of research. Humans, social creatures that we are, need to recognize individuals and judge how they are feeling in real time.

Being able to recognize friend or foe is important, as is judging a friend or foe's emotional state at any point in time. Split-second decisions need to be made on the basis of the shapes and forms created by the lumps of flesh hung from the front of our skulls.

Early studies carried out on individuals with severe brain damage seemed to infer that faces are processed differently from other objects.

A subject, known as C.K., was left with agnosia (an inability to process sensory information) following a car crash. It was impossible for him to recognize even the most basic of objects, not even his own limbs. However, C.K.'s ability to recognize faces was still intact. This was taken as evidence that information from faces might be dealt with separately.

The lateral fusiform gyrus

Prosopagnosia, a rare condition caused by brain lesions, prevents an individual from recognizing faces, even their own. Lesions in the fusiform gyrus region have been known to cause this so-called face blindness.

In particular, an area of the fusiform gyrus referred to as the fusiform face area (FFA) has been implicated in facial recognition. Using magnetic resonant imaging (MRI), researchers have shown that the FFA is more active when viewing faces than other objects.

The individual roles of discrete brain areas are always difficult to tease apart, thanks to the extreme complexity of the brain, but the FFA certainly does seem to be involved in aspects of facial recognition.

Controversies surrounding the fusiform facial area

As with many aspects of neuroscience, the role of the FFA is still being debated. One MRI study imaged the brains of car and bird experts. The researchers found that the FFA region lit up when the experts were shown images of cars and birds, respectively.

This finding implicates the FFA in neural activity surrounding the identification of fine differences in well-known objects, not just faces.

Other research has shown that, although the FFA does not develop until adolescence, babies can differentiate between faces. These results call into question the FFA's evolutionary role and also infers that other brain centers are involved in facial recognition.

Some studies have investigated the role of the FFA in emotional responses. For instance, the FFA was found to respond more strongly when presented with a fearful face than a face with a neutral expression.

In short, there are still more questions than answers. Research into the details of facial recognition will continue, of course, but one thing is for sure, no one should let Blofeld anywhere near them with a scalpel.

In other movie news, recently covered research showing that horror movies might indeed curdle the blood.

My favorite James Bond villains defeat (Video Medical And Professional 2018).

Section Issues On Medicine: Medical practice