Teens’ ‘brain fingerprints’ may be able to predict mental health problems down the line

Teens’ ‘brain fingerprints’ may be able to predict mental health problems down the line

Summary: The unique characteristics of an individual adolescent’s brain can help predict the risks of developing mental health problems later in life.

Source: The conversation

Despite the best efforts of clinicians and researchers over decades, we still do not fully understand why some people develop mental disorders and others do not. However, changes in the brain are most likely the best predictors of future mental health outcomes.

The adolescent brain is particularly important in this pursuit as the changes during this period are rapid and dynamic, sculpting our individual uniqueness. In addition, most mental disorders appear during adolescence, with more than half appearing by age 14 and three-quarters by age 25.

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

We are researchers with the world’s first Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS). We have been monitoring adolescent brain development using MRI scans for several years. Our recent work is the first to show the uniqueness of an adolescent’s brain (or ‘brainprint’) can predict mental health outcomes.

Brain fingerprinting could be the future of mental disorder prevention, allowing us to spot signs of worry in teenagers through brain imaging and intervene early before illness occurs.

Our unique brain in action

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

To date, our study includes 125 participants, from age 12, with over 500 brain scans between them. Our research documents brain development and mental health in teenagers over the age of five. It uses quarterly brain imaging (MRI and EEG) and psychological and cognitive assessments.

We looked at each person’s functional link – their brain’s system of neural pathways in action. We found that how unique these characteristics are is significantly associated with new psychological distress reported at the time of follow-up scans four months later. In other words, level of uniqueness appears to be predictive of a mental health outcome.

MRIs were performed at rest, as opposed to task-based functional MRI. It still tells us a lot about brain activity, like how the brain keeps connections going or gets ready to do something. You could compare it to a mechanic listening to an idling engine before driving it.

This shows a red and blue brain overlapping
By monitoring and tracking brain changes as they occur, we can address emerging mental health issues in adolescence and target early treatment. Image is public domain

In the 12-year-olds we studied, we found that there are unique functional connections of the entire brain. But a more specific network – involved in the control of goal-directed behavior – is less unique to early adolescence. In other words, this network is still quite similar in different people.

We found that the extent of its uniqueness can predict later-onset symptoms of anxiety and depression. Thus, those with less unique brains had higher levels of anxiety down the line.

Rich knowledge

We suspect that the level of maturation in this brain network—the part that involves executive control or goal-directed behaviors—may provide a biological explanation for why some adolescents are at increased vulnerability to mental distress. It may be that delays in the “fine-tuning” of such executive function networks lead to increased mental health problems.

See also

This shows a brain over a hand

By doing brain scans and other assessments at regular intervals—up to 15 times for each participant—LABS not only provides detailed information about adolescent brain development, but can also better detect the onset and onset of mental illness.

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

In addition to unique brain signatures for predicting psychological distress, we expect that there will be other ways (using machine learning) that we can interpret information about a person’s brain. This will bring us closer to accurately predicting their mental health and well-being outcomes. Data-rich, long-term studies are the key to finding this “holy grail” of neuroscience.

Identifying mental health risk in adolescents means we may be able to intervene before adulthood, when many mental health disorders are embedded and more difficult to resolve.


This vision for the future of mental health care offers hope in the wake of recent statistics from the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020–21. They revealed two in five Australians aged 16 to 24 had a mental disorder in the past year, the highest rate of any age group. This is a 50% jump from the last national survey in 2007.

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

About this neurodevelopmental research news

Author: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos and Zach Sun
Source: The conversation
Contact: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos and Zach Shan – The Conversation
Picture: The image is public

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