By: April Carson
"I think about it every day and dream about it at night. It's been my life for the last five years," says Enrico Amico, a neuroscientist and EPFL Ambizione Fellow at the Medical Image Processing Laboratory at EPFL and the Center for Neuroprosthetics. He's referring to his work on the human brain. More precisely, his work on the brain's "fingerprint", a data-mining technique that is revolutionizing how researchers look at how our brains function.
Using biological data from patients with neurological diseases, Enrico Amico and his colleagues have succeeded in identifying distinct patterns of activity associated with different neurological conditions.
"My work focuses on brain networks and connections, particularly the links between different regions, in order to learn more about how things function," Amico explains. "We do this mostly using MRI scans, which monitor the activity of the brain over a period of time." His research team analyzes the scans to produce visualizations of brain activity represented as colorful, three-dimensional fingerprints.
"We can map these fingerprints for each neurological condition," says Amico, "and we have discovered that they are different from one another. This suggests that the brain is able to compensate for certain damage or diseases by reallocating its functions."
Our brains function in similar ways across all individuals, but there are differences from one individual to another. Ischemic damage, for example, is a condition in which there is a loss of blood flow to part of the brain. In this case, some areas may be more affected than others. "We can see these differences by looking at an individual's fingerprint," he says.
"Functional brain connectomes" are a type of graph that displays all of the information we require. The connectome is a map of the neural network. It shows what activities were being carried out during an MRI scan, such as whether individuals were resting or engaged in other activities. Our connectomes vary depending on what activity was being done and which part of the brain was most active.
All it takes are two scans
Every one of us has a unique brain fingerprint, according to neuroscientists at Yale University who studied these connectomes several years ago. Comparing the graphs generated from MRI scans of the same individuals done several days apart, they were able to correctly match up the two scans in nearly 95% of cases. In other words, the variations in neural machinery were unique to each individual.
He decided to go one step farther in his research. Brain fingerprinting has been studied previously with MRI scans that take several minutes. He wondered whether these impressions could be identified after just a few seconds, if there was a specific point at which they appeared, and how long the moment would last; if so, what exactly is this "point"?
Neuroscientists have previously identified brain fingerprints using two MRI scans taken at least three months apart. But, for example, do the prints truly appear after just five seconds, or do they need more time? And what happens if different parts of the brain have distinct fingerprints? Nobody knew the answer. So we tested several time scales to see what would happen.
In only 1 minute and 40 seconds, you can create a brain fingerprint
Dr. Amico's team discovered that seven seconds was too short to gather useful data, but 1 minute and 40 seconds was ideal. "We learned that the data necessary for a brain fingerprint to develop might be acquired in very tiny time intervals," says Amico. "There is no need for an MRI that takes five minutes to scan the brain."
The fastest brain fingerprints were discovered in the sensory areas of the brain, particularly those concerned with eye movement, visual perception, and visual attention. Frontal cortex regions, which are responsible for more complex cognitive processes, start to reveal particular information to each of us as time goes on.
The goal will be to compare healthy patients' brain fingerprints with those of Alzheimer's disease patients. "Based on my initial findings, it appears that the characteristics that distinguish a brain fingerprint get less distinct as the disease progresses," Amico says. "It becomes more difficult to identify people based on their connectomes."
Along with this, potential uses include early detection of neurological diseases in which brain fingerprints vanish. Amico's approach may be used to examine people affected by autism, stroke, or drug addiction. "This is just another tiny step toward figuring out what makes our brains unique: the possibilities that this knowledge opens are endless."
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