Despite the efforts of clinicians and researchers over decades, we still don’t quite know why some people develop mental disorders and others don’t. However, changes in the brain are very likely our best clues for future mental health outcomes.
The adolescent brain is particularly important in this endeavor, as changes during this period are rapid and dynamic, shaping our individual uniqueness. In addition, most mental disorders develop during adolescence, with more than half by age 14 and three quarters by age 25.
By monitoring and monitoring changes in the brain as they occur, we can address emerging mental health issues in adolescence and address early treatment. The challenge is to accurately predict the likelihood of a person developing a mental disorder well before it happens.
We are researchers with the world’s first Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS). We have been monitoring the brain development of adolescents using MRI scans for several years now. Our recent paper is the first to show that 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, enabling us to identify signs of concern in teens through brain imaging and intervene early before disease develops.
Read more: Brain activity is as unique – and identifying – as a fingerprint
Our unique brain in action
Just as fingerprints are unique, every 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, ages 12 and up, with more than 500 brain scans among them. Our research captures brain development and mental health in adolescents over five years. It uses four-monthly brain imaging (MRI and EEG), and psychological and cognitive assessments.
We looked at each individual’s functional connectome – the brain system of neural pathways in action. We found that how unique these features are is significantly associated with new psychological distress reported four months later on subsequent scans. In other words, the level of uniqueness appears to be predictive of a mental health outcome.
The 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 maintains connections or gets ready to do something. You could compare this to a mechanic listening to an idling engine before taking it for a ride.
In the 12-year-olds we studied, we found that unique functional whole-brain connectomes exist. But a more specific network—which is involved in directing goal-directed behavior—is less unique in early adolescence. In other words, this network is still quite similar in different people.
We found that the magnitude of its uniqueness can predict anxiety and depression symptoms that emerge later. So those with less unique brains had higher levels of distress across the board.
Read more: We have been tracking youth mental health since 2006. COVID has accelerated a worrying decline
We suspect that the level of maturation in this brain network — the part that includes executive control or goal-directed behavior — may provide a biological explanation for why some teens are more vulnerable to mental distress. It may be that delays in fine-tuning 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 granular information about adolescent brain development, but can also better pinpoint the onset and onset of mental health problems. .
Our approach enables us to better determine the occurrence and sequence of changes in the brain (and in behaviour, lifestyle factors, thinking) and psychological risks and problems.
In addition to unique brain signatures to predict mental health problems, we expect there will be other ways (using machine learning) to interpret information about a person’s brain. This will bring us closer to accurately predicting their mental health and wellness outcomes. Long-term data-rich studies are key to finding this “holy grail” of neuroscience.
Identifying mental health risks in teens means we may be able to intervene before adulthood, when many mental health disorders become ingrained and more difficult to resolve.
Read more: How to talk to your toddler to protect their well-being as they grow up to be a teenager
Worth the effort
This vision of the future of mental health offers hope in the wake of recent statistics from the National Study on Mental Health and Well-being 2020–21. They revealed that two in five Australians aged 16 to 24 had a mental disorder in the previous year, the highest rate of any age group. This is a 50% jump since the last national survey in 2007.
With $11 billion spent annually in Australia on mental health services, better prevention through early detection should be an urgent priority.