Are brain scans as unique as fingerprints

MRI shows: Each person's brain anatomy is unique

The fingerprint is unique for every person: it can be used to identify a person beyond doubt, which is used by criminology, immigration authorities and smartphone manufacturers alike. But what about the control center in our head? Can one infer the person who owns the organ based on certain anatomical features of the brain? The working group around Lutz Jäncke, UZH professor for neuropsychology, asked itself this question. Because in previous studies, Jäncke was able to show that individual experiences and living conditions influence the anatomy of the brain.

Professional musicians, golfers or chess players, for example, have special features in the areas of the brain that place particularly high demands on their expertise. Events of short duration also leave traces in the brain's anatomy: for example, if the right arm is immobilized for two weeks, the thickness of the cerebral cortex is reduced in the areas that are responsible for controlling the immobilized arm. "We suspected that such experiences, which affect the brain, interact with genetic predispositions and that, over the years, a very individual brain anatomy develops in each person," explains Jäncke.

In order to get from the assumption to certainty, he and his working group examined the brains of almost 200 healthy elderly people using magnetic resonance imaging three times over a period of two years. Over 450 neuroanatomical features were calculated, including very general ones such as the total volume of the brain, the thickness of the cerebral cortex or the volume of gray and white matter. For each of the 191 people, the scientists were finally able to identify an individual combination of neuroanatomical parameters, with the identification accuracy even with the very general neuroanatomical parameters being over 90 percent.

"With our study we were able to confirm that the human brain has a very individual structure," says Lutz Jäncke, commenting on the results. "Apparently the combination of genetic and non-genetic influences not only influences the way the brain functions, but also its anatomy." However, it is unlikely that MRT scans could replace the widespread fingerprint in person recognition in the future. For this purpose, MRI examinations are too expensive and time-consuming compared to the tried and tested and easy-to-measure fingerprint.

For Jäncke, the results of the study reflect the great development in his field: "30 years ago it was assumed that the human brain had few or no individual characteristics. But magnetic resonance tomography has since improved a lot, as has the software for evaluating digitized brain scans - "Advances that have taught us better today," says Jäncke.; Source: University of Zurich