Adolescents’ ‘brain fingerprints’ may be able to predict future mental health problems – Neuroscience News

Summary: Unique features of the teen’s brain can help predict the risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

source: Conversation

Despite the tremendous efforts of doctors and researchers for decades, we still don’t know exactly why some people develop mental disorders and others don’t. However, changes in the brain are probably the best clues we have for future mental health outcomes.

The adolescent brain is especially important in this endeavor because changes during this period are rapid and dynamic, sculpting our individual uniqueness. Moreover, most mental disorders appear during adolescence, with more than half occurring by age 14, and three-quarters by age 25.

By monitoring and tracking brain changes as they occur, we can address emerging mental health problems in adolescence and target early treatment. The challenge is to accurately predict a person’s likelihood of developing a mental disorder long before it occurs.

We are researchers with the first longitudinal study of the adolescent brain (LABS). We’ve been tracking adolescent brain development using MRI scans for several years. Our latest research paper is the first to demonstrate an adolescent’s brain uniqueness (or “brain imprint”) that can predict mental health outcomes.

Brain imprinting could be the future of preventing mental disorders, allowing us to identify signs of anxiety in adolescents through brain imaging, and to intervene early before disease progresses.

Our Unique Brains at Work

Just as fingerprints are unique, each human brain has a unique profile of signals between brain regions that become more individual and specialized with age.

So far, our study has included 125 participants, aged 12 years, with more than 500 brain scans between them. Our research monitors adolescent brain development and mental health over a five-year period. Brain imaging is used every four months (MRI and EEG) and psychological and cognitive assessments.

We looked at each individual’s functional neural network – the system of neural pathways in their brains at work. We discovered that how closely these unique characteristics correlate with new psychological distress reported at the time of subsequent scans four months later. In other words, level of individuality appears to be predictive of mental health outcome.

MRI scans were performed during the resting state, in contrast to task-based functional MRI. It still tells us a lot about brain activity, such as how the brain continues to operate communications or prepares to do something. You can compare this to a mechanic, and hear the engine decelerate before it is driven.

By monitoring and tracking brain changes as they occur, we can address emerging mental health problems in adolescence and target early treatment. The image is in the public domain

In the 12-year-olds we studied, we found that unique functional neural networks do exist. But the presence of a more specific network—involved in controlling goal-directed behavior—is less distinct in early adolescence. In other words, this network is still quite similar across different people.

We found that its uniqueness can predict symptoms of anxiety and depression that develop later. So those with less distinct brains had higher levels of distress down the line.

rich insights

We suspect that the level of maturity in this brain network—the part that includes executive control or goal-directed behaviors—may provide a biological explanation for why some adolescents are at increased risk of mental distress. Delays in ‘fine tuning’ of executive function networks may be increasing mental health problems.

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This indicates a brain on the hand

By performing brain scans and other assessments at regular intervals — up to 15 times per participant — LABS not only provides accurate information about adolescent brain development, but can also better identify the onset and onset of mental ill health.

Our approach allows us to better identify the occurrence and sequence of changes in the brain (and behaviours, lifestyle factors and thinking) and mental health risks and problems.

In addition to unique brain signatures to predict psychological distress, we expect that there are other ways (using machine learning) in which we can interpret information about a person’s brain. This will bring us closer to an accurate prediction of their mental health and well-being outcomes. Rich data, and studies over a long period of time are key to finding this “holy grail” of neuroscience.

Identifying adolescent mental health risks means we may be able to intervene before adulthood, when many mental health disorders become embedded and difficult to resolve.

Deserves all the effort

This vision for the future of mental health care provides hope in the wake of recent statistics from the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-2021. They revealed that two in five Australians aged 16 to 24 had a mental disorder within the previous year, the highest rate of any age group. This is a 50% jump since the last national survey in 2007.

With A$11 billion spent on mental health services in Australia each year, better prevention through early detection must be an urgent priority.

About this research on neurodevelopment news

author: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos, and Zach Chan
source: Conversation
Contact: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos, and Zach Chan – The Conversation
picture: The image is in the public domain

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