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Winrich Freiwald wins the 2024 Kavli Prize for Neuroscience

Winrich Freiwald in a blue shirt and glasses

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded Winrich Freiwald the 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. Freiwald, the Denise A. and Eugene W. Chinery Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neural Systems, is being honored for his discovery of a specialized system in the brain’s neocortex that is responsible for recognizing faces.

He shares the award with MIT’s Nancy Kanwisher, with whom he did his postdoc, and UC Berkeley’s Doris Tsao, with whom he collaborated to combine brain imaging studies and recordings of individual face-processing neurons in the macaque brain—work that built on Kanwisher’s earlier findings.

This collaboration led to the discovery of a face-processing machinery consisting of six dedicated brain areas known as face patches. Freiwald later showed that each patch is responsible for processing a different dimension of facial information, and that most of them interconnect to form a higher-order network. He also characterized populations of cells that selectively respond to familiar faces.

“This outstanding research will ultimately further our understanding of recognition not only of faces, but objects and scenes,” says University of Oslo neuropsychologist Kristine Walhovd, chair of the Kavli Prize Neuroscience Committee.

By investigating how the face-processing system is embedded in the brain, Freiwald has revealed how the brain extracts social meaning from a face to generate emotional reactions, activate memories, and guide social actions—including smiles exchanged between friends and strangers alike.

His lab recently discovered a previously unknown brain area involved in attention control and is investigating this function in the context of face processing. Future research will explore how the brain circuits involved in facial recognition drive cognition, and how changes in their function may lead to psychiatric disorders.