“I think about it every-day and dream about it at night. It has been my whole life for 5 years now,” says Enrico Amico, a scientist & SNSF Ambizione Fellow at EPFL’s Medical Image Processing Laboratory and EPFL Center for Neuroprosthetics. He is talking about his research on the human brain in general and on brain fingerprints particularly. He learned that every one of us has a brain “fingerprint” and this point constantly changes in time. His findings have been published in Science Advances.
“My research examines networks & connections within the brain and especially the links between the variety of areas, so as to gain more insight into how things work,” says Amico. “We do this largely through MRI scans, which determine brain activity over a given time period. “His research group processes the scans to create graphs, represented as colorful matrices that summarize a subject’s brain activity. This type of modeling technique is known in scientific-circles as network neuroscience or brain connectomics. “All information we need is in these graphs that are generally known as “functional brain connectomes.” The connectome is a map of neural network. They inform us, what subjects were doing during their MRI scan, if they were resting or performing several other tasks, for instance. Our connectomes change-based on what activity was being carried-out and what parts of the brain were being used,” says Amico.
Two reviews are all it takes
Some years ago, neuroscientists at the Yale University studying these connectomes found that every-one of us has an unusual brain fingerprint. Comparing graphs created from the MRI scans of the same subjects taken some days apart, they were able to rightly match up the 2 scans of a given subject around 95 percent of the time. In other words, they could accurately identify an individual-based on their brain fingerprint. “That is really impressive, because identification was made through only functional connectomes, which are essentially-sets of correlation scores,” says Amico.
He decided to take this finding one-step-further. In previous studies, brain fingerprints were identified through MRI scans that lasted some minutes. But, he wondered, whether these prints could be identified just after a few seconds, or if there was a particular point in time when they appear and if-so, how long would that moment last? “Until now, neuroscientists identified brain fingerprints through 2 MRI scans taken-over a fairly long period. But, do fingerprints really appear after just 5 seconds, for instance, or do they need longer? And, what if fingerprints of different brain areas appeared at variety of moments in time? No one knew the answer. So, we tested variety of time-scales to see what would be,” says Amico.
A brain fingerprint in just 1 minute & 40 seconds
His research group found that 7sec was not long enough to detect useful data, but that nearly 1 minute & 40 seconds was. “We realized that the information required for a brain fingerprint to unfold could be obtained over very short time periods,” says Amico. “There is no requirement for an MRI that determine brain activity for 5 minutes, for instance. Shorter time-scales could work too.” His study even showed that the fastest brain fingerprints begin to appear from the sensory areas of the brain, and especially, the areas related to eye movement, visual perception & visual attention. As time goes by, even frontal cortex regions, the ones associated to more-complex cognitive functions, begin to reveal unusual information to each of us.
The next step will be to-compare-the brain fingerprints of healthy cases with those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “Based-on my starting or initial findings, it seems that the features that make a brain fingerprint unusual steadily disappear as the disease progresses,” says Amico. “It gets harder to identify people-based on their connectomes. It is as if a person with Alzheimer’s loses his or her brain identity.”
Along this line, potential operations may include early detection of neurological conditions, where brain fingerprints get vanish. Amico’s fashion can be used in patients-affected by autism or stroke or also in subjects with drug-addictions. “This is only another little step towards understanding, what makes our brain unusual: the opportunities that this insight might generate are limitless.”
A success story of SNSF Ambizione program
Enrico Amico’s research has been made possible, because of an SNSF Ambizione Fellowship. “This unusual program was able to attract a promising young researcher to Switzerland, when he was a post-doctoral scholar at the Purdue University,” mentions Prof. Van De Ville, head of Medical Image Processing Laboratory. “Ambizione allowed him to continue independently his research ideas, but also to choose on successful collaborations with the host-lab. It’s rewarding to see these goals achieved.”
The findings were published in the Science Advances.