Capgras syndrome: a novel probe for understanding the neural representation of the identity and familiarity of persons

William Hirstein, V. S. Ramachandran


Patients with Capgras syndrome regard people whom they know well such as their parents or siblings as imposters. Here we describe a case (DS) of this syndrome who presents several novel features. DS was unusual in that his delusion was modality–specific: he claimed that his parents were imposters when he was looking at them but not when speaking to them on the telephone. Unlike normals, DS's skin conductance responses to photographs of familiar people, including his parents, were not larger in magnitude than his responses to photographs of unfamiliar people. We suggest that in this patient connections from face–processing areas in the temporal lobe to the limbic system have been damaged, a loss which may explain why he calls his parents imposters. In addition, DS was very poor at judging gaze direction. Finally, when presented with a sequence of photographs of the same model's face looking in different directions, DS asserted that they were ‘different women who looked just like each other’. In the absence of limbic activation, DS creates separate memory ‘files’ of the same person, apparently because he is unable to extract and link the common denominator of successive episodic memories. Thus, far from being a medical curiosity, Capgras syndrome may help us to explore the formation of new memories caught in flagrante delicto.

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