Summary: The unique characteristics of an individual adolescent’s brain can help predict the risk of developing mental health problems later in life.
Source: The conversation
Despite decades of effort by clinicians and researchers, we still don’t know exactly why some people develop mental disorders and others don’t. However, changes in the brain are very likely our best clues to future mental health implications.
The adolescent brain is particularly important in this quest as changes during this time are rapid and dynamic and shape our individual uniqueness. Additionally, most mental disorders appear during adolescence, with more than half onset 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 seek early treatment. The challenge is to accurately predict the likelihood that a person will develop a mental disorder long before it occurs.
We are researchers with the world’s first Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS). We have been following the development of adolescent brains using MRI scans for several years. Our latest study is the first to show that an adolescent’s brain (or “brain fingerprint”) is uniquely capable of predicting mental health outcomes.
Brain fingerprinting could be the future of mental health disorder prevention, as it allows us to detect signs of concern in teenagers through brain imaging and intervene early before a disease develops.
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 with age.
To date, our study includes 125 participants aged 12 and over, including over 500 brain scans. Our research captures brain development and mental health in adolescents over a five-year period. It uses brain imaging (MRI and EEG) and psychological and cognitive assessments every four months.
We looked at each individual’s functional connectome – the neural pathway system of their brain in action. We discovered that the uniqueness of these features is significantly associated with new psychological distress reported at the time of subsequent scans four months later. In other words, the level of uniqueness appears to be a predictive outcome for mental health.
MRI scans were performed at rest, in contrast to task-based functional MRI. It still tells us a lot about brain activity, e.g. B. how the brain keeps connections going or getting ready to do something. You could compare this to a mechanic listening to an engine idling before driving it off.
In the 12-year-olds we studied, we found that unique functional whole-brain connectomes existed. But a more specific network – involved in the control of goal-directed behavior – is less unique in early adolescence. In other words, this network is still fairly similar across different people.
We found that the magnitude of its uniqueness can predict later-onset anxiety and depression symptoms. So those with less unique brains across the board had higher levels of stress.
We suspect that the maturity of this brain network – the part that involves executive control or goal-directed behavior – may provide a biological explanation for why some teenagers are more vulnerable to psychological distress. Delays in “fine-tuning” such executive function networks may lead to increased mental health problems.
Through brain scans and other examinations at regular intervals – up to 15 times for each participant – LABS not only provides detailed information about the development of the adolescent brain, but can also better localize the development and onset of mental illness.
Our approach allows us to better determine the occurrence and sequence of changes in the brain (and in behaviors, lifestyle factors, thinking) and mental health risks and problems.
In addition to using unique brain signatures to predict mental stress, 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. Data-rich studies over a long period of time are the key to finding this “holy grail” of neuroscience.
Identifying teenage mental health risks means we may be able to intervene before adulthood, when many mental health disorders are embedded and more difficult to resolve.
Its worth it
This vision for the future of mental health care offers hope given recent statistics from the 2020-21 National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. They revealed that 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% increase 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 should be an urgent priority.
About this news from neurodevelopmental research
Author: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos, and Zach Shan
Source: The conversation
Contact: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos and Zach Shan – The Conversation
Picture: The image is in the public domain