Brain 'fingerprints' may be used to identify people - study

New research shows how unique patterns of brain activity can be used for identification purposes, as well as detection of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's.

 The brain (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The brain
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Our brains have patterns of activity that are unique to each individual, similar to a fingerprint. While scientists have previously been able to identify such "fingerprints" based on two MRIs (magnetic resonance images) taken over a period of time, a peer-reviewed study published on Friday in the journal Science Advances found that these patterns can be identified in under two minutes.

Researchers used diffusion-weighted imaging to map white brain matter pathways and identify structural connections, and they used fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images) to model functional connections, which they found were most prominent while subjects were in a resting state.

Although it is easiest to identify a subject when bursts of brain activity occur in longer time intervals, researchers found that the length of time in which these cognitive connections are made correlates with the functions of different parts of the brain; visual and voluntary motor functions tend to appear in shorter intervals, while activity in the frontoparietal region—which is associated with executive functioning and problem-solving—more often occurs in longer sequences.

These findings break new ground in neuroscientists' understanding of brain "fingerprints" and may make the process of identifying people based on these fingerprints significantly easier.

The researchers also found that the aspects of brain "fingerprints" that allow them to be used for identification disappear over time in subjects with Alzheimer's Disease, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

PET scans showing the differences between a healthy older adult's brain and the brain of an older adult afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease (credit: Wikimedia Commons)PET scans showing the differences between a healthy older adult's brain and the brain of an older adult afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"It’s as if a person with Alzheimer’s loses his or her brain identity,” said Enrico Amico, a scientist with Swiss university Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s (EPFL) Medical Image Processing Laboratory and Center for Neuroprosthetics.

This phenomenon could make it easier to detect Alzheimer's while it is still in its early stages, and may even help identify patients with autism, stroke, or drug addiction.