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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

UAE woman with rare disorder sees human faces melt like a Dali painting 

Prosopometamorphosia is a rare visual perception disorder that means sufferers see others with grotesquely distorted faces

Gala Placidia, 1952, by artist Salvador Dali at the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. AFP 
Gala Placidia, 1952, by artist Salvador Dali at the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. AFP 

Imagine if every time you looked at the faces of the people you love, you saw their eyes popping out like something from a horror film and their features melting – that is the scary reality for sufferers of prosopometamorphosia.

Neurology consultants at Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital have seen what they claim is only the thirteenth reported case worldwide of the disease, with 54-year-old Beverly Singh (name changed to protect patient confidentiality) complaining of seeing the people around her with elongated, protruding eyes and half of their faces distorted.

Prosopometamorphosia is a rare visual perception disorder causing those afflicted to see distorted images of other people's faces. Many have described the faces of regular people and even loved ones as looking grotesque, with prominent teeth and scary eyes, while others have described faces as having a cartoon-like quality.

Some compare the faces seen to paintings by Picasso or something from the imaginings of surrealist Salvador Dali.

The condition is rare. In one of the few other cases to have been reported, a 52-year-old woman presented in 2011 to a psychiatric clinic in the Netherlands, said that, for her entire life, she had seen human faces metamorphose into the faces of dragons.

“She could perceive and recognise actual faces, but after several minutes they turned black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red,” it was reported in The Lancet.

She also saw similar dragon-like faces drifting towards her many times a day from the walls, electrical sockets or her computer screen.

Exactly what causes the condition remains unknown. First described in 1947, it is usually transient and is attributed to structural brain changes or functional disorders such as epilepsy, migraine or eye disease.

Doctors speculate that it may involve abnormal activity in the areas of the brain that processes faces or an impairment in the transfer of visual information and memory function between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Dr Halprashanth DS, consultant neurologist at Burjeel Hospital, said: “Prosopometamorphosia is one of the world’s rarest neurological conditions. Unsurprisingly, the disorder can be quite distressing for those affected and impacts their quality of life."

The distorted images seen depend on which part of the brain is affected. Ms Singh also sees flashes of bright lights that contained images, such as cars, which now prevent her from driving.

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For her, it all started one day when she had taken her granddaughter to the pool.

“I suddenly didn’t feel right and asked to go home,” she said.

She fell asleep when she got there and, later in the evening, when she went out with her husband she suddenly started seeing images of cars in front of her and got an intense headache.

Six months later, it started again but this time the headaches were stronger so she went to see the doctor.

“When I looked at the doctor, it looked like his eyes were popping out,” she said.

An initial examination by the neurological team returned normal results, but a subsequent MRI scan of her brain revealed that she had suffered a stroke.

Luckily, the doctor had seen a case of this unusual condition before and Ms Singh then tested positive for Prosopometamorphosia.

“It was a scary experience but now I'm aware of it,” she said. And luckily for Ms Singh, she was prescribed medication and strict blood pressure control and now her facial vision has returned back to normal.