Space & Innovation

Your Brain Has a Unique 'Fingerprint' That Can Now Be Mapped

Scientists have figured out how to identify the structural connections within the brain that are unique to every individual person.

As you read this, your brain's neurons are firing away within a pattern of networks that is uniquely yours. This pattern makes up your brain's "fingerprint."

New research has confirmed that the point-by-point connections that make up the mesh-like white matter of your brain are truly unique to each individual person, and are perpetually shaped not only by genetics but also by experience.

"If we compare a brain structure to a complicated circuit, the white matter is the wiring of the circuit," Fang-Cheng (Frank) Yeh, lead author of the study appearing in PLOS Computational Biology, told Seeker. "Everyone's wiring is unique and can actually define who a person is - his or her personality, experience, education."

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Before you start imagining brain scanners at ID checkpoints, keep in mind that because our brain fingerprints are constantly shaped by experience, it's unlikely the finding will lead to a new identification tool.

Instead, the hope is by scanning people's brain fingerprints, doctors and researchers will have a new way to diagnose and possibly treat mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.

It also offers unique insight into how shared experience can directly impact biology - particularly the brain's map of neural connections, otherwise known as our connectomes.

"There are a couple of things we can take away from this," coauthor and Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Psychology Timothy Verstynen told Seeker in an email. "First, it gives us another measure by which to see and measure neuroplasticity. Second, and more importantly, it alludes to the fact that individuals with similar experiences may start to show more similar structural connectomes."

To confirm everyone's wiring pattern is unique, Yeh, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University used diffusion MRI to precisely measure connections along all of the white matter pathways in the brain. Diffusion MRIs use the diffusion of water molecules in tissue to generate contrast in images.

After measuring more than 17,000 multiple local connections within the brains of 699 subjects, they were able to read the scans and then determine whether two connections came from the same person or not - with nearly 100 percent accuracy.

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Even identical twins featured unique brain fingerprints since a person's white matter is shaped by outside factors as well as genetics. Twins only share 12 percent of the same structural patterns in their brain wiring, the team found.

"An interesting future study would look at the brain fingerprint of twins at a young age and then track how their brain fingerprints became different over time," said Yeh.

Life experience plays such a role in shaping your brain fingerprint, that your white matter's structural patterns change by an average of 13 percent every 100 days, the researchers found.

"We think that experience has a profound and powerful impact on the unique connectivity profile of the structural connections in your head," Verstynen told Seeker.

"What we want to do next is see if we can similarities in the local connectome across people. For example do people who grew up with the same life experiences have similar structural connections? Or do people who have similar cognitive abilities also have similar connectomes?" Verstynen posed. "If we can find this, then it suggests that maybe we can also find other common patterns."

Yeh admits that the process they used to identify and differentiate brain patterns is still in its very early phase. However, once methods are refined and made more efficient, he envisions that an early possible application will be using the technology to help diagnose mental illnesses.

"Diagnosis of mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder is prone to error," he told Seeker. "Hopefully in the future, this brain fingerprint could reveal the process that causes the development of a brain disease. Then the condition will be evident in the brain fingerprint."

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