We’re all familiar with the universal concept that no two people are exactly alike. Not even twins, triplets or quadruplets. A new neurological study done by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University has just proven this once again. People can’t ever be exactly the same because our brains are wired differently. Literally.
Diffusion MRI is a new, non-invasive approach that captures the brain’s connections at a level that has never been possible before. In contrast with conventional approach that can only obtain one estimate of a structural connection, diffusion MRI can acquire several estimates as it can measure along each segment of the connection, allowing it to provide a clearer differentiation of the unique patterns. With a more detailed picture of what goes on, there’s a better chance of understanding why one’s brain functions well. Or why another’s brain malfunctions.
For the study, the local connectome of 699 brains from 5 data sets were measured using diffusion MRI. The local connectome refers to the point-by-point connections along the white matter pathways in the brain (as opposed to region-to-region connections). By tracking the water molecules’ movements along the local connectomes and reconstructing the data gathered, the research team was able to generate a unique “fingerprint” for each brain.
Going further, they did repeat MRI scans for some of the individuals and ran over 17,000 identification tests. What they discovered was that each MRI scan was so distinct that they can accurately tell whether 2 brain ‘fingerprints’ or local connectomes came from just one, or from two different individuals.
In addition, the team also found out that one’s local connectome changes over time, shifting to different patterns about 13% every 100 days. The assumption is that the change happens as a result of a person’s life experiences. Which supports what we already know, that more than just genetics, how a person thinks is highly influenced by the environment he/she moves around in, and the experiences he/she goes through. And because these factors may actually be reflected in one’s brain patterns, comparing the brain patterns of people who have undergone the same experiences (even those who had the same pathological diseases) might help identify how they will react so preventive or corrective actions can be undertaken in advance.
Diffusion MRI has led to the discovery that each individual has distinct structural neural connections and this “brain fingerprint” can serve as a basis to accurately identify one person from another. Although this breakthrough in personal identification has many potential advantages, for now, it will have to take a backseat to brain fingerprinting’s more important and urgent application. And that’s in the field of medicine.
If studies using this new approach progress as hoped, it may eventually be possible to determine how changes in the brain’s connections can serve as markers for certain behaviours, mental disorders and psychiatric illnesses. In time, maybe we’ll have the means to stop a disease from developing even before it starts. And maybe one day, it might become possible to save those who have the tendency to become suicidal or go into a psychotic break. It’s an extreme scenario but it’s one worth looking forward to.