The brain’s fingerprint reveals early signs of mental health illness
Like our unique fingerprints, we all have a unique combination of connections in the brain. These networks of connections stabilises during childhood and adolescence. Delayed development may be an early sign of mental health disorders.
Senior researcher Lars Tjelta Westlye and colleagues at NORMENT have used MRI to measure brain patterns in nearly 800 children and adolscents. Photo: Øystein Horgmo, UiO.
Like a fingerprint, the connections of the human brain render us distinct from one another, and help make us into individuals. The evolvement of these networks during childhood and adolescence is an important part of normal brain development.
Researchers have discovered in a new study that irregular brain development during this period of life may cause an increased risk of mental health disorders later in life.
– We know that many mental health disorders are generally hereditary, and it is important to investigate how the interplay between environmental and genetic risk factors affect individualization of the brain during childhood and adolescence, Tobias Kaufmann says. He is a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT) at the University of Oslo.
Mental health disorders can result in very heavy personal burdens. Therefore, trying to identify why some children develop mental health disorders later in life is an enormously important research task with implications for both patients and their families.
Young people’s brains are very malleable
The period of childhood and adolescence is marked by major biological and environmental changes. At the same time, many young people feel that ever-increasing demands are made on them by their surroundings. Children and adolescents have very malleable brains that carry an enormous potential for learning and development during this period.
This impressionability is necessary for normal development and for the child’s adaptation to her surroundings. However, for some children, this impressionability can incur negative consequences.
– The brain’s ability to change quickly enables the child to acquire new knowledge and adapt to surroundings, but at the same time it increases the child’s vulnerability to risk factors from the surrounding environment, says Lars T. Westlye, senior researcher at NORMENT and associate professor at the Department of Psychology.
It is precisely during these adolescent years that most mental health problems arise, through a complex interplay between heredity and environment.
– For some, the combination of genes and environment may develop into symptoms and complaints that correspond with one or more psychological diagnoses and that will require subsequent treatment, he says.
The researcher explains that what we want an optimal balance between stability and adaptability within the brain. The development of this balance can be an important marker for the way the brain matures during the years of childhood and adolescence.
Unique fingerprints in the brain
One technique for studying the brain’s development is advanced brain imaging such as MRI. The MRI yields a detailed image of the brain’s anatomy and function with no side effects at all for the person tested.
– Through the MRI, we are able to study communication between the different parts of the brain. This allows us to look for individual differences in the networks, which in turn tells us about the risk of disease and ongoing disease processes, Westlye says.
These networks also form a pattern in the brain that is as unique as a fingerprint. Researchers can therefore use the networks, with a high degree of precision, to identify individuals.
– We can identify individuals based on brain patterns, and we can investigate whether precision increases with age, and if it decreases in the presence of symptoms of mental health disorders, Westlye explains.
Delayed development in persons suffering mental health disorders
The researchers used functional MRI to measure brain patterns in nearly 800 children and adolescents from 8 to 22 years of age, while they performed different types of mental tasks. Comparisons were then made between the brain networks of the subjects, and between the various tasks.
– We saw that the unique communication patterns in the brain develop gradually, with a particularly comprehensive maturation during adolescence, Westlye explains.
In persons with early symptoms of psychological disorders, the researchers observed that there was a delayed development and that brain patterns were less distinct and less stable. Networks that were less distinct indicated a higher level of disease symptoms.
– We saw that the networks in these individuals were less stable across the different mental tasks and situations, and that they were also less individualized, Kaufmann explains.
– Moreover, we saw that precision increased throughout the adolescent years, and that persons with a greater number of early signs of mental health disorders were more difficult to identify than were persons with fewer symptoms, Westlye added.
Better tools for diagnosis and treatment
The results from the study provide us with new information on the development of the brain throughout the years of childhood and adolescence and on the processes that help to increase or reduce the risk of psychological problems later in life.
– The information can help us develop better tools to determine a correct diagnosis and treatment for the patients, in Kaufmann’s opinion.
– This cross-disciplinary task between genetics and environment, and the way these affect our thought functions and mental health are an incredibly interesting area of research that pertains to all of us. I think we will learn much about this area in the years to come, Westlye concludes.
This study is a collaboration between NORMENT and the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo and the Oslo University Hospital.