Summary: The unique characteristics of individual adolescents’ brains may help predict their risks of developing mental health problems later in life.
source: The conversation
Despite the best efforts of clinicians and researchers for decades, we still do not fully know why some people develop mental disorders and others do not. However, changes in the brain are very likely our best clues to future mental health outcomes.
The adolescent brain is particularly important in this pursuit, as changes during this period are rapid and dynamic, sculpting our individual uniqueness. Furthermore, most mental disorders appear during adolescence, with more than half appearing by age 14 and three-quarters by age 25.
By observing and tracking brain changes as they occur, we can address emerging mental health issues in adolescence and target early treatment. The challenge is accurately predicting 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 track adolescent brain development using MRI scans over several years. Our recent paper is the first to show the uniqueness of an adolescent’s brain (or their “brain fingerprint”) can predict mental health outcomes.
Brain fingerprinting could be the future of mental disorder prevention, allowing us to identify signs of anxiety in teenagers through brain imaging and intervene early before the disease develops.
Our unique brains 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 has included 125 participants aged 12 years, with over 500 brain scans among them. Our research covers adolescent brain development and mental health over five years. It used four months of brain imaging (MRI and EEG) and psychological and cognitive assessments.
We looked at each individual’s functional connectome – their brain’s system of neural pathways in action. We found that how unique these characteristics were was significantly associated with new psychological distress reported during follow-up scans four months later. In other words, level of uniqueness appears to be predictive of mental health outcome.
MRI scans were performed during a resting state, as opposed to task-based functional MRI. It still tells us a lot about brain activity, such as how the brain keeps connections working or prepares to do something. You can compare this to a mechanic listening to the engine idle before taking it for a drive.
In the 12-year-olds we studied, we found that unique functional connections existed throughout the brain. But a more specific network—involved in controlling goal-directed behavior—is less unique in early adolescence. In other words, this network is still quite similar across people.
We found that the degree of its uniqueness could predict later-onset symptoms of anxiety and depression. So those with less unique brains had higher levels of distress in the end.
We suspect that the level of maturation in this brain network—the part that involves executive control or goal-directed behavior—may provide a biological explanation for why some teenagers 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.
By performing brain scans and other assessments at regular intervals—up to 15 times for each participant—LABS not only provides fine-grained information about adolescent brain development, but can also better pinpoint the onset and onset of mental illness.
Our approach allows us to better establish the occurrence and sequence of changes in the brain (and in behaviour, lifestyle factors, thinking) and mental health risks and problems.
In addition to unique brain signatures for predicting psychological distress, we expect there to 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 studies over a long period of time are the key to finding this “holy grail” of neuroscience.
Identifying mental health risk in teenagers means we may be able to intervene before adulthood, when many mental health disorders become embedded and harder to resolve.
It’s worth it
This vision of the future of mental health care offers hope after the latest statistics from the 2020–21 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing revealed that two in five Australians aged 16 to 24 had experienced a mental disorder in the previous year, the highest percentage of any age group. This is a 50% jump from the last national survey in 2007.
With A$11 billion spent on mental health services in Australia each year, better prevention through early detection must be an urgent priority.
About this neurodevelopmental research news
Author: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos, and Zach Shan
source: The conversation
Contact: Daniel Hermens, Jim Lagopoulos and Zach Shan – The Conversation
Image: Image is in the public domain