Ron Blackwell didn't enter the hospital expecting to see his doctor's face melt before his eyes. But that's exactly what happened when researchers electrically stimulated a small part of his brain, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The doctor's face did not actually melt, of course. Instead, the researchers argue, the stimulation short-circuited a brain area called the fusiform gyrus. Previous studies have linked a part of that area to face processing by showing that it becomes active when people perceive faces. But it's hard to know just how important the area is for facial processing unless you can actually change its activity level while someone views faces.
Blackwell, an epileptic, turned out to be the perfect test case. He was in Stanford's hospital so that doctors -- including the study author, Dr. Josef Parvizi -- could study his epilepsy and decide whether they could perform surgery to remove the part of the brain responsible for his seizures. As part of that procedure, Parvizi laid down a strip of electrodes on the surface of the brain. That gave him the capacity to painlessly and harmlessly stimulate the part of the brain they covered, and one of those electrodes was right over the fusiform gyrus.