Visual agnosia is a condition that affects how your brain processes what you see. Your vision works correctly, but your brain doesn’t. This affects how you recognize objects, people, places and more. This issue usually happens because of injuries or diseases of the brain. It’s often permanent, but therapy can help people adapt to this condition.
Visual agnosia is a condition that disrupts your brain’s ability to process and understand what you see with your eyes. There are several different forms of visual agnosia, with a wide range of effects on your ability to see the world around you.
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Visual agnosia can happen to people at any age but happens more commonly with certain health conditions. Many — but not all — of these conditions are more likely to happen as you age. An example of an age-related condition that can cause this is stroke, while a brain injury would be an example of a cause that’s not age-related.
Visual agnosia (and all agnosias) is rare. However, there’s little available data within the last 50 years on how frequently people receive a diagnosis of visual agnosia.
Your eyes allow you to see, but they only pick up visible light from the world around you. They then send nerve signals to your brain containing information about what they saw. Your brain turns those signals into information that you can understand and use.
Visual agnosia is when your eyesight works correctly, but the parts of your brain that process information from your eyes aren’t working as they should.
The symptoms of visual agnosias depend on the form and type of agnosias.
Visual agnosia happens because of brain damage or diseases that cause disruptions inside of your brain.
Damage to your brain causes injuries, known as lesions, affecting how those areas work. Some examples of conditions or problems that cause brain lesions include:
These are diseases that disrupt the structure or function of your brain, including the connections between different areas. Disruptions in the structure and connections mean that different areas of your brain can’t communicate and work together as they should.
Conditions that cause or involve these kinds of disruptions include:
Visual agnosia isn’t contagious. While some infections can cause it, this is rare and having one of these infections isn’t a guarantee of developing this condition.
Diagnosing visual agnosia usually involves a combination of physical and neurological exams, gathering information about a person’s history, and diagnostic and imaging tests. Multiple approaches are usually necessary because the tests and exams look for different things:
The following diagnostic and imaging tests are possible with visual agnosia:
Other tests are possible if visual agnosia has a confirmed or suspected cause, such as an infection or exposure to toxins. Your healthcare provider is the best person to answer any questions you have about tests that are possible in connection with these conditions.
Visual agnosia isn’t directly curable. However, some of the underlying causes of this condition are curable. That can sometimes help these conditions improve, but brain damage often has permanent residual effects. If that’s the case, visual agnosia often doesn’t improve.
The treatments and medications likely for visual agnosia depend on the goal. Some methods aim to treat or cure the underlying condition that caused visual agnosia. The goals of other treatments and therapies are to help a person adapt to and live with visual agnosia, especially when it’s likely that the condition will be long-term or permanent.
These approaches work on the underlying problem that’s causing visual agnosia. In some cases, treating or curing the underlying issue can help or fix visual agnosia. In other cases, the treatment aims to stop the underlying condition from worsening and causing more severe problems.
Possible treatments include, but aren’t limited to:
In cases where visual agnosia might improve over a long period or is permanent, some treatments and techniques can still help. Therapy and rehabilitation programs with specially trained staff and support are often part of the care plan for people with this condition.
These programs can help you adapt in multiple ways, such as:
The possible complications or side effects of visual agnosia and the related treatments depend strongly on the type of visual agnosia and the treatments themselves. Your healthcare provider is the best person to answer any questions about what you might expect during treatment, recovery and ongoing care.
It's important not to self-diagnose or treat visual agnosia without seeing your healthcare professional. That’s because this condition involves changes in your brain, many of which can happen because of serious or deadly medical conditions. Many of the conditions that can cause visual agnosia also worsen over time, so it’s best to get care sooner rather than later.
Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what you can and should expect during your recovery. That’s because the recovery time for this ranges widely. Some people may recover over a few months to a year. Others will have this condition for the rest of their lives.
Most conditions that cause visual agnosia happen unpredictably, or they happen for reasons outside of your control. Because of this, it’s not usually a preventable condition. The only way to prevent or reduce your risk of developing visual agnosia is to avoid or prevent some of the conditions and problems that cause it. Some of the most helpful things you can do include:
Most people with this condition can expect difficulty identifying objects, people, places, etc. The specific problem depends on the form and type of this condition that you have. Your healthcare provider is the best source of information on what to expect with this condition and can tailor that information to your specific condition and circumstances.
Visual agnosia is almost always a long-term condition, lasting at least months. It’s also often permanent.
While visual agnosia can be a disruptive condition, it’s not dangerous on its own. However, this condition often happens alongside or because of dangerous or life-threatening conditions. Because of this, monitoring this condition and getting care quickly if you develop it are essential to your long-term health and well-being.
Your healthcare provider is the best person to guide you on living with any kind of visual agnosia. They can also direct you to resources, programs and trained, experienced healthcare providers to help you adapt to and live with this condition. They can also track your symptoms and monitor any changes in the condition.
Many people experience anxiety or even shame because of this condition. Many will start to avoid situations and circumstances where their issue might become apparent. Counseling and therapy are also a good idea for people who experience these feelings. They can help you learn to cope with and manage your feelings and worries concerning your condition.
If you start noticing the symptoms of visual agnosia, or if you notice a loved one showing any of them, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider sooner rather than later (especially if the symptoms appear over a shorter period).
Once you’ve got a diagnosis, your healthcare provider can set up a schedule of visits and care. You should also talk to them if you notice any changes in your symptoms or if your symptoms start to interfere with your usual routine and activities.
If symptoms of visual agnosia appear suddenly, it’s important to seek emergency medical care. This is especially true if they happen in connection with hitting your head, which could indicate bleeding in your brain, or if they happen along with any symptoms of a stroke.
The symptoms of stroke include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Visual agnosia is a rare condition that isn’t dangerous on its own. However, it can happen alongside serious medical conditions. Even when it doesn’t happen with dangerous medical conditions, it’s still a confusing, frightening medical problem. Fortunately, advances in medicine’s understanding of how your brain works have brought big improvements to how healthcare providers diagnose and treat this condition. Even if this condition is permanent, there are programs and healthcare providers who can help you adapt to it, so it has the least possible impact on how you want to live your life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/07/2022.
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