Our brains have a fingerprint that is uniquely ours.
During our lifetime, fingerprints have been the most common method used to identify us. In addition to fingerprint scanners, modern technology has given way to other means of gathering biometric data, such as voice recordings and retinal scans. Science uses all these biometrics to prove we are totally unique and to differentiate us from the other 7.9 billion people. Can the brain be used to identify us as accurately as fingerprints?
According to research published in the journal ‘Science Advances’, our brains have a “fingerprint”, too: “an individual’s functional brain connectivity profile is both unique and reliable, similar to a fingerprint, and it is possible, with near-perfect accuracy in many cases, to identify an individual among a large group of subjects solely on the basis of her or his connectivity profile.” We all have a brain “fingerprint” that continually changes, unlike our fingerprints.
Neuroscientist and corresponding author Dr Enrico Amico discussed his research on brain fingerprints in ‘EurekAlert!’: “I think about it every day and dream about it at night. It’s been my whole life for five years now.”Our brains produce patterns of activity that are unique. To understand when these patterns become distinctive and recognisable, researchers at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, investigated how they change over time. “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,” noted Dr Amico. To do this, they used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure brain activity over a certain time period. These scans were then used to create graphs in the form of colourful matrices that summarise a person’s brain activity.
“All the information we need is in these graphs, that are commonly known as ‘functional brain connectomes’,” explained Dr Amico. “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.”Until now, neuroscientists have been identifying brain fingerprints using two MRI scans taken over a long period of time. The research team found that about 1 minute and 40 seconds was enough to detect useful data for reliable identification. “We realized that the information needed for a brain fingerprint to unfold could be obtained over very short time periods,” Dr Amico further elaborated. “There’s no need for an MRI that measures brain activity for five minutes, for example. Shorter time scales could work too.”
The findings could lead to the early detection of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s that make brain fingerprints disappear. The novel method can be applied to people with autism, stroke patients and even those suffering from substance use disorders. “This is just another little step towards understanding what makes our brains unique: the opportunities that this insight might create are limitless.”