Developing rehabilitation for interactions between visual impairment, voice recognition, social impairment and depression

Stock image of voice recognition

Project Overview

The ability to recognize faces and expressions is critical for every day social interactions. However, it is still unknown whether loss of the ability to recognize faces contributes to depression and or social anxiety in individuals who are blind. Our goal is to investigate the impact of face and voice recognition abilities on social functioning of visually impaired individuals, and eventually to develop tools which might help compensate for face recognition loss.

Our ability to recognize faces and expressions is critical for every day social interaction, and there are good reasons to suspect that difficulties in recognizing faces may contribute to social isolation1. If this is the case, then training to improve voice recognition abilities may lessen social anxiety and depression in individuals who are blind.

Individuals, who cannot recognize faces visually, must rely on other cues for social interaction, e.g. on voice recognition. There is evidence that both profoundly blind and low vision individuals are better at voice recognition than sighted individuals2-6. However, these studies collapsed across individuals who suffered from a variety of types of low vision. As a result, it is not yet known whether improved voice recognition is specific to those individuals whose vision loss results in difficulties in recognizing faces. Nor is it known whether these enhancements in voice recognition are specific to those who are early blind, and therefore have always relied on vocal cues or those who have had a long period of time to adjust to loss of vision.

This study will thus investigate whether visual impairments that affect face recognition abilities are more likely to result in improved voice recognition than other types of visual impairments. It will also consider the history of visual impairment: one possibility is that individuals who have had to rely on voices from a young age are likely to be better at voice recognition than individuals who suffered from low vision later in life.

To examine the interaction between face recognition loss due to visual impairment and social integration, we will see whether poor visual face recognition abilities are correlated with social anxiety and depression. We will also examine whether this correlation is stronger for those individuals who are poor at both visual face recognition and auditory voice recognition, since these are the individuals who are likely to have the most difficulties in social functioning.

Finally, we will train low vision individuals that are poor at visual face recognition to specifically improve their voice discrimination abilities, and investigate whether this training can reduce social anxiety and depression.


Team Members

Susanne Klauke, PhD (Alumni)
Pitt Plastics Postdoctoral Research Fellow Ione Fine, PhD
Professor, University of Washington and Co-Director, UW Center for Brain Imaging

References & Publications

1 Barton JJ (2003) Disorders of face perception and recognition. Neurol Clin. 21(2): 521-48

2 Hölig C, Föcker J, Best A, Röder B, Büchel C (2014) Brain systems mediating voice identity processing in blind humans. Hum Brain Mapp. 35(9): 4607-19. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22498

3 Föcker J, Best A, Hölig C, Röder B (2012) The superiority in voice processing of the blind arises from neural plasticity at sensory processing stages. Neuropsychologia. 50(8): 2056-67. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.05.006

4 Gougoux F, Belin P, Voss P, Lepore F, Lassonde M, Zatorre RJ (2009) Voice perception in blind persons: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuropsychologia. 47(13): 2967-74. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.06.027

5 Hertrich I, Dietrich S, Moos A, Trouvain J, Ackermann H (2009) Enhanced speech perception capabilities in a blind listener are associated with activation of fusiform gyrus and primary visual cortex. Neurocase. 15(2): 163-70. doi: 10.1080/13554790802709054

6 Bull R, Rathborn H, Clifford BR (1983) The voice-recognition accuracy of blind listeners. Perception. 12(2): 223-6