The Face and the Nervous System: What Your Face Can Reveal About Your Internal Structure

Faces and the Brain by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash

On the television series, “Bones”, scientists gather information about what the person looked like from their skull and skeleton. It seems almost magical, as they calculate the age, gender, race and even what the soft tissue — the face muscles and skin looks like.

The current state of face recognition technology is remarkable, and perhaps approaches what is done on television. The National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Defense have been working on computer programs to identify facial patterns. They are looking for quicker, more accurate ways of recognizing the face of someone, perhaps wanted in conjunction with a criminal investigation.

Our own ability to read faces tells us something about our limbic system, the rage response part of our brain and part of our survival mechanism.

Imagine seeing a face and being able to describe the shape of the nose and the color of the lips but have no idea if this is someone you know, a family member or famous person. This is called prosopagnosia from the Greek prosopon (face) and agnosis (without knowledge). People with prosopagnosia, know when they are looking at a face, can even determine age, gender, and expression but will fail to recognize family, close friends, or their own face in a mirror. In a 1991 article entitled “What makes faces familiar?”, Haan and Newcombe noted, not even a vague feeling of familiarity survives the brain damage.

A person’s ability to use their face expressively also tells us something about their brain. In Parkinson’s disease the person’s affect or facial expressiveness becomes less animated.

The shape and features of a person’s face can also tell us about their brain and nervous system. Genetic make up , genetic disorders, medications, toxins can all shape a face.

One of every 33 babies is born with a birth defect, according to Parent‘s’ Place. Many of these affect the face and have a characteristic “look”. About 1 in every 100 to 200 babies is born with a heart defect. Heart defects make up about one-third to one-fourth of all birth defects. Down’s syndrome, a genetic condition that affects about 1 in 800 babies, affects both the heart, face and immune system.

Many people are aware of the way alcohol and smoking can contribute to birth defects including shifts in facial features. The same can happen with some anti-seizure medications (Adams, 1990 in Neurotoxicol Teratol), acne medications (2000, MMWR Morb Mortal Weekly Report), anti-depressants, ( and even blood thinners.

In one study, Loos, et al (2003) reported, “Our results prove that certain syndromes are associated with a specific facial pattern and that this pattern can be described in mathematical terms.”

What researchers showed was that where the eyes are in relation to the nose and the distance between the bottom of the nose and the lips or the height of the ears in relationship to the cheek bones can tell us, if we are paying attention, about the genetics of that person.

In fact a mathematical model has been created for certain genetic disorders, which is accurate enough to enable a computer to beat the geneticists at the facial recognition game. Researchers used 55 photographs of children and adults with genetic disorders involving the face or in more technical terms with craniofacial malformations. The five conditions were: mucopolysaccharidosis type III, Cornelia de Lange, fragile X, Prader-Willi and Williams-Beuren.

Thirty-two points on the face were compared. The computer successfully identified the condition in 76 percent of the cases. Clinical geneticists who were shown the same photographs could only manage a recognition rate of 62%. Sometimes “the look” is about genetics and some times it is about tension in the face.

In Down’s Syndrome, typically the head is smaller than average (microcephaly) and the nose slightly flattened. This along with the epicanthal folds (inner corner of the eyes may have a rounded fold of skin) give people with Down’s syndrome a characteristic look.

One group of researchers noted, “epicanthal folds are seen in infants and young children of all races, and they appear as a normal finding in Asians of all ages. The formation of these folds seems to be related to tension from excessive underlying muscle, in many cases” according to Jordan and Anderson (1989) in “Epicanthal folds. A deep tissue approach.” The epicanthical folds also show up in several other genetic conditions, including Downs’ syndrome, Potter syndrome which is also associated with kidney problems. Epicanthal folds are associated with mitochodrial (the energy producing part of the cell) disorders, such as Zellweger syndrome.

In a fascinating study in 1986 on children with tortocollis or severe neck tension pulling the head to one side, M.C. Jones in the Journal of Pediatrics, found epicanthal folds only on one side of the face.

“A unilateral epicanthal fold was present in 22 of 54 fully documented cases (41%). In 78% of these, the fold was ipsilateral to the area of occipital flatness. Because most infants are examined in an “en face” position, the presence of a unilateral epicanthal fold should prompt further investigation for a readily treatable torticollis.”

People talk of “saving face” but what of “changing face”? Certainly people can change their “look” with surgery but the research on circulation and muscles spasm contributions to facial features, begs the question, “If these children with specific facial features due to muscle tension can be treated, why can’t other children with genetic disorders?

In all cases, their facial features are a result of what is going on in the nervous system, the immune system, the kidneys, heart and other structures in the brain.

Down Syndrome Faces and Nervous System by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The answer, of course is that they can be treated successfully.

Successfully meaning that their facial features change as their heart and kidney function improves and as their nervous system responds to treatment.

Treatment can range from standard medical protocols to Integrative Manual Therapy and nutritional programs. All of these can impact on our faces, our ability to see and recognize our own and other peoples faces. They impact on our ability to use our face to express who we are in the world.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kimberly Burnham

Kimberly Burnham


Writer, Poet, Ekphrastic Writer-in-Residence, Nerve Whisperer, Brain Health Coach, Author of The Traveling Brain: Illuminating Peace Poetry in 5000 Languages.