Connections in the Brain, Like Fingerprints, Can Identify Individuals

By Janine Anderson | October 12, 2015 11:03 am
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This image shows the functional connections in the brain that tend to be most discriminating of individuals. (Credit: Emily Finn)

Each person is unique. You can identify people by their DNA, fingerprints, personal preferences and behavior. But new research out of Yale University has shown we have another unique identifier: How our brains work.

“We all have this intuition that people are unique. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, our quirks and personalities, what we’re good at and how we handle things,” says study co-first author Emily Finn, a pHD student in neuroscience at Yale. “It’s very easy to observe that from the outside … but it’s been pretty hard to find correlates in brain activities.”

And yet, it is the brain that makes all those differences possible. Knowing this, Finn and co-first author Xilin Shen, an associate research scientist at Yale, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to see if our brains each have a unique “fingerprint” that could distinguish one person from another.

Brain ID

To get a glimpse at the way specific parts of the brain function in real time, scientists use fMRIs to repeatedly scan a person’s brain while they complete a specific task. The noninvasive technique measures the amount of blood flowing to certain parts of the brain — more blood indicates more activity. Most fMRI studies average brain function over a study population, which has let scientists learn what parts of the brain work under certain circumstances. The convention among scientists, Finn said, was that it is hard to get meaningful information out of a single person’s fMRI scan.

Finn and Shen wanted to challenge conventional thinking.

They scanned the brains of 126 participants in the Human Connectome Project while they performed several different tasks. They mapped the connections in the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes — recently evolved parts of the brain involved in complex functions like attention and language — to develop connectivity profiles of each person. They found that each person’s bran activity profile was indeed unique.

“The same brain doing two different things always looks more similar than two different brains doing the same thing,” says Finn. “It’s something that maybe seems intuitive outside the field but it’s something no one had been able to show.”

Their study was published Monday in Nature Neuroscience.

Predicting Performance

Beyond proving each person’s connection profile was unique and distinguishable from another person’s, Finn and Shen also looked to see if it was possible to use profile data to accurately predict someone’s performance on a test. To measure performance, they first developed a predictive model; they then — 126 times — removed one subject’s profile and put the remaining 125 through their model to see if it could accurately predict the person’s performance on a test that measured reasoning and the ability to see patterns.

Because they had the subjects’ actual test results, they could see how well the model stacked up, and found it was able to predict performance in a statistically significant way.

“It was more accurate than chance,” says Finn. “It certainly wasn’t perfect.”

A Bigger Role for fMRI

Finn says the predictive portion of the study was “more a proof of principle” that brain profiles could be linked to cognitive behavior.

“If we can predict that,” says Finn, “maybe we can predict something we can’t just give a test for, like the risk for mental illness or who would respond best to some kind of drug.”

That’s what led her and others on the team to do this work, she said.

“You as a scientist like to think the things you’re discovering about the brain will help people someday,” says Finn.

She wanted to see if there was a way to make fMRI scans useful from a clinical standpoint, where doctors could someday tell from the scan whether a person might be at higher risk for developing a mental illness, and to then implement a support plan that could improve their outcome. Currently, fMRI scans are really only used in research settings, Finn said, because it is harder to get usable information out of the scans. Instead, structural MRIs, which take static photos of the brain, are used regularly to diagnose problems in the brain, like tumors or strokes.

“I think doing this type of work and pushing the boundaries of what we can get out of one person’s scan is the first step down the road to make this brain scanning technology have real-world applicability,” says Finn.

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  • http://qpr.ca/blog alqpr

    On the ID aspect, it will be interesting to see whether the identifying patterns really persist over multi-year periods (and with regard to “uniqueness”, whether they will ever be capable of distinguishing between identical twins with similar upbringing).
    Actually, features that are predictive of broad-brush behavioural characteristics may be less likely to support and identify individual uniqueness than ones which are essentially random and with lots of very fine detail (like the traditional fingerprints and iris patterns).
    And with regard to most of the truly practical applications I don’t know whether to consider them promising or scary (probably both!).

  • ejhaskins

    Isn’t this ‘difference’ really a matter of learning? After all, NNE of us really can ever have identical learning experiences.

  • Samantha Royer

    This is of very much interest. I was diagnosed with MS at 25, and had always been ” better then most” at most everything I ever tried. Genetics vs nurture. I believe, in my case, it was nature, because I am 95 % my father’s daughter, both physically and mentally. I had a service dog, who passed quite recently, and was the smartest dog, I have ever known or trained in a lifetime of training dogs. Can dogs from shelters be trained as service dogs? Certainly so, but with a great deal of time, only starting at two years old, and taking at least two years, to create a functional and useful service dog.

    Jordan was very specially chosen, by a behaviorist, myself, and a vet, specifically out of a litter of newborn, champion bred and field trained British Labs, the breed standard. Though Labs, as a breed are generally one of the last to loose their puppy traits, and move on to adult behavior, and cognition, she was exceptional, and was an adult cognitively by six months old. I certified her as a service dog, at 11 months old. And until the day she died, she did something that actually stunned me every single day. I am desperate for a service dog, because legally, through the Federal law of the ADA, she was truly my only assistive device, as well as my only mental healthcare for years. Nature or nurture?

    Both. I got IQ from my father, but travelled extensively all over the world, starting when I was a child with my family. My parents also put me in a private preschool, where I learned to read at three. Nature and nurture?

    Jordan was hobby bread, and her sire and dam,chosen through a great deal of investigation, into pedigrees, to choose two animals, that did not inherit genetic flaws, to better the breed as a whole. Nature, because of exceptional breeding, and nurture, because I am not only a very good trainer, but also an animal behaviorist.

    I have personally been in dire circumstances for five years now. And it will take a great deal of time, to choose a puppy with proper genetics, and not just for confirmation. And, after 27 years with MS, it has taken my optic nerve,band I will no longer drive again. And I have wacky cognitive problems, having nothing to do with intelligence. Why, do I still have the skill of multi tasking, when some days, I simply wake up confused? Why is it that I can easily take multiple choice tests, when my ex husband, a truly brilliant vet, could not pass the multiple choice part of the tes for board certification? He has encyclopedic knowledge of not only vet medicine, but also drugs, and their intmove, to eractions with each other. And I know enough about vet medicine,that I am quite sure, had I taken that portion, I would have passed it. How,and why am I able to sort out the four answers at hand, and intelligently, and carefully weed out the obvious wrong, from the two, that are the most likely to be right. Is it a skill? And if so, where and how did I learn it?

    But I cannot remember new phone numbers, and have never been able to. Pneumonics is a skill I learned very young to remember names, but I can find no good way to memorize a sequence of numbers, and have never been able to. Why are their times, when I have no idea which hand to use to put a plate on a kitchen counter with? But ask me what year, the first Christian roman Emperor wa crowned, and what year, and I can spit it out with ease. I wish there was someone, who could help me understand how my defective brain works. MS is, in fact a quite annoying brain injury.

    The brain is a very maleable organ. As the body, and particularly muscles, have an incredible amount of what we body builders, and personal fitness trainers call muscle memory. I have had times of illness, but after two months of training, both my strength and musculature return to the fullest. Once you have developed those muscles, they choose to return to the state they were most natural in. Muscle memory is a certainty, because I am as week now, as the dozens of newborn orphan kitties I raised, and my brain is mush, and I am not learning at a rate exceptsble to me.

    When I do emerge from the most private, and personal hell I have been in, for five years, and am no longer court ordered to be homeless, both organs, my brain and my muscular structure, will have the opportunity to not just be fighting to stay alive.

    I will hopefully, soon find a home again, to set up my exceptionally well equipped free weight gym, so give me three to six months, and I will again be stronger then most men, not “metal heads” like myself. When I have any money at all, I will upgrade the cognitive computer games, I own through iTunes, but I cannot afford the more powerful and effective games I need to improve, particularly, my short term memory, and spatial problems.

    My hope and expectancy to improve my life, and have it returned to me is positive. The things I cannot change, are other people’s negative behavior to me, fate, and luck. Is it bad karma? Depending on your beliefs, was I a monster in a previous life?

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