The pattern of connections between the billions of neurons that exist inside the human brain are completely unique to each person, new research reveals. By developing a new technique to image these connections in greater detail than ever before, scientists have managed to identify people with 100 percent accuracy just by looking at their neural fingerprints.
The idea that each person has a unique set of brain connections – or connectome – is nothing new. After all, no two individuals have the same personalities or thought patterns, so it seems logical to assume that our brains are all uniquely wired.
However, because of the unimaginable complexity of the human brain, creating a map of a person’s connectome remains beyond the reach of scientists. Until now, our best efforts had managed to reveal the connections between different brain regions, without showing the links between individual neurons.
A team of scientists therefore decided to use an imaging technique called diffusion MRI to generate a map of local connectomes in 699 human brains. This means that rather than looking at the whole brain and trying to work out how different regions are wired up, they focused in on small sections of white matter and mapped out the individual connections between the neurons populating these sections.
Researchers focused in on the connections between individual neurons in order to create local connectome maps. Rost9/Shutterstock
Describing their work in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, the study authors explain how this approach allowed them to reveal the highly unique local connectome of each brain. To test the reliability of their findings, they conducted 17,398 identification tests, during which they were able to distinguish which connectome belonged to which brain every time.
"This confirms something that we've always assumed in neuroscience – that connectivity patterns in your brain are unique to you," said study co-author Timothy Verstynen in a statement.
While a person’s connectome is partly determined by genetics, the fact that identical twins were found to share only 12 percent of their connectivity patterns indicates that the vast majority of this fingerprint is shaped by life experiences and education.
In fact, the researchers found that every person’s local connectome is constantly in flux, changing by an average of 13 percent every three months.
"This means that many of your life experiences are somehow reflected in the connectivity of your brain. Thus we can start to look at how shared experiences, for example poverty or people who have the same patholoigical disease, are reflected in your brain connections, opening the door for potential new medical biomarkers for certain health concerns," concludes Verstynen.