According to a world-first study by scientists at the University of Sunny Beach, medical imaging of a person’s unique brain signature – much like a fingerprint – can predict mental health problems in young teenagers.
In a study published in NeuroImageResearchers at the University of Southern California Thompson Institute tested the uniqueness of individual teenagers’ brain activity patterns and whether changes in their brain networks were associated with their mental health symptoms at different points in time.
“We examined whether there are unique patterns of neural activity in brain networks that may be associated with the emergence of anxious, confusing and frustrating feelings experienced by adolescents, especially those who may be prone to psychiatric disorders,” said Dr. Shan, Head of the Neuroimaging Platform at the Thompson Institute.
Dr. Shang, who was the study’s lead author, said the team characterized the development of different “functional networks” of the brain in young adolescents based on brain scans taken every four months in a group of about 70 participants starting at age 12. up to 15 years old.
Each time a scan was taken, the participants also filled out questionnaires that asked about their feelings over the past 30 days, especially levels of depression and anxiety.
“The results highlight the importance of longitudinal neuroimaging for monitoring adolescent mental health — at a time when the brain is growing and changing dramatically in both structure and function — and its potential to detect changes before abnormal behaviors occur,” said Dr. Shan. .
“Given the nature of emerging psychiatric illness in young adults, continuous assessment of psychological stress is more likely to reveal important associations between neurobiological measures and psychiatric illness.”
Mapping brain changes as they occur
The data was collected as part of the Thompson Institute’s Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS), a study designed to monitor changes in the brain during adolescence and to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that influence adolescent mental health.
More than half of all mental health problems occur before the age of 14. In Australia, one in four young people aged 15 to 19 meet the criteria for a probable serious mental illness.
The “uniqueness” of the brain signature was determined by how similar the person was to themselves at other points in time, as well as how similar they were to their peers (other participants).
Key Takeaways on Differences and Similarities in Young Minds
Like a fingerprint, each human brain has a unique pattern of signals between different areas of the brain that becomes more individual and specialized with age.
“The brain works like a symphony orchestra, with the activity of different areas of the brain synchronizing to determine our thoughts and behavior,” Dr. Shan said.
Unique whole-brain synchronization was confirmed to exist in 12-year-olds, with 92 percent of the participants having their own functional connectomes, or unique brain “fingerprints.”
Further analysis of 13 separate brain networks revealed that some networks were unique by age 12, while others were still maturing and shaping.
Importantly, the brain network that controls an individual’s “cognitive flexibility” and ability to cope with negative influences, known as the “cingulo-opercular network” (or CON), has a low level of uniqueness.
“This suggests that he has not quite reached maturity yet, and thus provides a biological explanation for the increased vulnerability of young people,” Dr. Shan said.
“Combined with the presence of a high level of whole brain uniqueness, the results showed that adolescents are able to use these systems to regulate everyday behavior. But they are not yet doing it in a controlled, sustainable and reliable way.”
The key finding was that CON uniqueness was significantly and negatively associated with subsequent levels of psychological distress when assessed four months later.
“This relationship reflected the importance of CON for adolescent mental health. In future research, we plan to investigate whether this worsening of pre-existing experiences or whether the delay in the formation of a unique system causes an increase in psychological distress. Dr. Shang said.
The networks that showed the most uniqueness were the “fronto-parietal network”, which is responsible for immediate information processing, and the “default mode network”, which is important for internal cognitive processes such as thinking about oneself or the future.
The effect of stress on the “triple network” of the adolescent brain
Zack Y Shan et al. A longitudinal study of the uniqueness of the functional connectome and its association with psychological distress in adolescence. NeuroImage (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.119358
Provided by the University of Sunny Beach.
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