Marlene Behrmann, PhD

Adjunct Professor, Neuroscience


331H Baker Hall
F: 412-268-2798
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PhD, University of Toronto (1990)


Visual cognition in normal and brain-damaged humans.

Research Summary

Despite the fact that visual scenes often contain multiple objects and people, humans can recognize the different objects and individuals with ease and accuracy. Research in my laboratory focuses on studying how this is achieved - what are the necessary psychological processes and representations that underlie abilities such as object segmentation and recognition, face recognition, mental imagery, reading and writing and spatial attention? Although these questions are asked within the framework of information-processing models used in cognitive psychology, I am also interested in identifying the neural mechanisms, which are responsible for these complex abilities.

The major approach I use to address these questions is to study the behavior of human adults who have sustained brain damage (usually through stroke or head injury) which selectively affects their ability to carry out these processes. For example, some patients are impaired at recognizing faces (prosopagnosia), some are impaired at recognizing objects (visual object agnosia) and some are unable to represent visuospatial information (hemispatial neglect). By examining patterns of associations and dissociations among abilities after brain damage, one can make inferences about the functional and structural organization of the brain. This neuropsychological approach is combined with several other methods: experiments from traditional cognitive psychology paradigms (analyzing the response latencies and accuracies of normal subjects); studies of the acquisition of these skills in children; simulations of artificial neural networks which may be used to model these processes and their breakdown following brain-damage; and functional neuroimaging studies which examine the biological substrate of high-level vision.

A final thread to my research is to conduct rehabilitation studies with the brain damaged subjects in order to treat the observed deficit. Carefully planned rehabilitation studies provide valuable information that can shed light on the mechanisms underlying visual cognition.


Heeger, D., Behrmann, M. and Dinstein, I. (2016). Vision as a beachhead. Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Sep 29. pii: S0006-3223(16)32855-4. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.09.019. [Epub ahead of print] Review. PMID: 27884424 (.pdf)
Harris, H., Israeli, D., Minshew, N., Heeger, D., Behrmann, M. and Sagi, D. (2016). Commentary: Perceptual learning in autism: over-specificity and possible remedies. Front Integr Neurosci. 2016 Nov 9;10:36. PMID: 27881955
Haigh, S., Gupta, A., Barb, S., Glass, S. A., Minshew, N. J., Dinstein, I., Heeger, D., Eack, S. M. and Behrmann, M. (2016). Differential sensory fMRI signatures in autism and schizophrenia: Analysis of amplitude and trial-to-trial variability, Schizophrenia Research, 175(1-3): 12-9. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2016.03.036. PMID: 27083780. (.pdf)
Haigh, S.M., Heeger, D. J., Heller, L., Gupta, A., Minshew, N. J. and Behrmann, M. (2016). No Difference in Cross-Modal Attention or Sensory Discrimination Thresholds in Autism and Matched Controls. Vision Research. (.pdf)
Harris, H. Israeli, D., Minshew, N. J., Bonneh, Y. Heeger, D. J. Behrmann, M., Sagi, D. (2015) Perceptual learning in autism: over-specificity and possible remedies, Nature Neuroscience. (.pdf)
Dinstein, I., Heeger, D. and Behrmann, M. (2015). How noisy is your brain? Trends in Cognitive Science, in press, ePub ahead of print online. (.doc)
Hahamy, A., Behrmann, M. and Malach, R. (2015). The idiosyncratic brain: distortion of spontaneous connectivity patterns in autism spectrum disorder, Nature Neuroscience, ePub ahead of print. (.pdf)
Whyte, E. M., Behrmann, M., Minshew, N. J.; Garcia, N., Elbich, D. & Scherf, K. Suzanne. (2015). Animal, but not human, faces engage the distributed face network in adolescents with autism, Developmental Science. (.pdf)
Scherf, K.S., Elbich, D., Minshew, N. J., and Behrmann, M. (2015). Individual Differences in Symptom Severity and Behavior Predict Neural Activation During Face Processing in Adolescents with Autism. Neuroimage Clinical, 7, 53-67. (.pdf)
Haigh, S., Dinstein, I. Heeger, D. and Behrmann, M. Cortical variability in the sensory-evoked response in autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, ePub ahead of print, DOI 10.1007/s10803-014-2276-6, PMID: 25326820. (.pdf)
Behrmann, M. and Plaut, D. C. (2015). Lateralization of the brain: real or apparent? The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, in press. (.pdf)
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How do we recognize faces and objects?
What areas of the brain are used to recognize faces and objects?
What affects our attention?
Do you have problems recognizing faces? Are you face blind?

You can help answer these and other important questions about the visual system and the brain by participating in our experiments.

We conduct both behavorial and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) experiments which examine visual perceptual differences across specific populations.

For the behavioral experiments, subjects view visual images on a computer screen and make judgments about them. Depending on the subject population we are studying, we may also include some paper and pencil aasks.

For the fMRI experiments, we look at areas of the brain that are active when subjects engage in particular tasks such as looking at faces, patterns, and objects. fMRI is a safe and non-invasive procedure. The fMRI is conducted at the Science Imaging Brain Research Center (SIBR) which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Currently, we are looking for participants in the Pittsburgh area from the following categories:

  • Healthy adults with no history of neurological disease
  • Senior citizens with no history of neurological disease and are in good health
  • Individuals with congenital prosopagnosia
  • Stroke patients with hemispatial neglect

If you are interested in participating in our research, please contact us via email or phone.
phone number: 412-268-8228

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