Scientists have pinpointed the signs of brain activity that make up our brain fingerprint, which — like our regular fingerprint — is unique.
While talking about his research on brain “fingerprint”, Enrico Amico says, “I think about it every day and dream about it at night. It’s been my whole life for five years now.”
Enrico Amico is a scientist and SNSF Ambizione Fellow at EPFL’s Medical Image Processing Laboratory and the EPFL Center for Neuroprosthetics. His findings about brain “fingerprint” got published in Science Advances.
“My research examines networks and connections within the brain, and especially the links between the different areas, in order to gain greater insight into how things work,” says Amico.
“We do this largely using MRI scans, which measure brain activity over a given time period.”
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His research team analyses the scans and generates several graphs and matrices to summarise or demonstrate a subject’s brain activity. This type of modeling technique is known as network neuroscience or brain connectomics, in scientific jargon.
“All the information we need is in these graphs, that are commonly known as “functional brain connectomes.” The connectome is a map of the neural network. They inform us about what subjects were doing during their MRI scan — if they were resting or performing some other tasks, for example.
Our connectomes change based on what activity was being carried out and what parts of the brain were being used,” says Amico.
Two scans are all it takes
Neuroscientists studying these connectomes at Yale University found that every human has a unique brain fingerprint. They compared the graphs generated from MRI scans of some individuals (subjects), taken a few days apart.
And, they found that the two scans of a given subject were very much identical and they were able to correctly match up the two scans of a given subject nearly 95% of the time. It means, they could accurately identify an individual based on their brain fingerprint.
“That’s really impressive because the identification was made using only functional connectomes, which are essentially sets of correlation scores,” says Amico.
Amico decided to take this finding one step further.
“Until now, neuroscientists have identified brain fingerprints using two MRI scans taken over a fairly long period. But do the fingerprints actually appear after just five seconds, for example, or do they need longer?
And what if fingerprints of different brain areas appeared at different moments in time? Nobody knew the answer. So, we tested different time scales to see what would happen,” says Amico.
A brain fingerprint in just 1 minute and 40 seconds”
“We realized that the information needed for a brain fingerprint to unfold could be obtained over very short time periods,” says Amico. “There’s no need for an MRI that measures brain activity for five minutes, for example. Shorter time scales could work too.”
His research group found that the duration can be reduced to around 1 minute and 40 seconds. His study also identified the areas where brain fingerprints appear sooner. Those are the sensory areas of the brain, and particularly the areas related to eye movement, visual perception and visual attention.
The next step will be to compare the brain fingerprints of healthy subjects with those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Based on my initial findings, it seems that the features that make a brain fingerprint unique steadily disappear as the disease progresses,” says Amico. “It gets harder to identify people based on their connectomes. It’s as if a person with Alzheimer’s loses his or her brain identity.”
This might help in early detection of neurological conditions where brain fingerprints disappear. Amico’s technique can be used in patients affected by various mental ailments like autism, or stroke, or even in subjects with drug addictions.
“This is just another little step towards understanding what makes our brains unique: the opportunities that this insight might create are limitless.”
A success story of the SNSF Ambizione program
Enrico Amico’s research has been made possible thanks to an SNSF Ambizione Fellowship.
“This unique program was able to attract a promising young researcher to Switzerland when he was a post-doctoral scholar at Purdue University,” mentions Prof. Van De Ville, head of the Medical Image Processing Laboratory.
“Ambizione has allowed him to pursue independently his research ideas, but also to choose on successful collaborations with the host lab. It is rewarding to see these goals achieved.”
Dimitri Van De Ville, Younes Farouj, Maria Giulia Preti, Raphaël Liégeois, Enrico Amico. When makes you unique: Temporality of the human brain fingerprint. Science Advances, 2021; 7 (42) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj0751
Source: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne