Millions of people in the United States live with mental health disorders. About 21 percent of adults in the U.S. – that’s 52.9 million people – had a mental illness in the last year. Some have manageable conditions and can function in daily life. Others experience severe symptoms which limit their ability to navigate and manage life effectively.
Despite the large number of people living with mental health disorders, researchers are still somewhat unsure of how mental disorders develop. Current understanding suggests a combination of biological and environmental factors cause mental illness. However, clinicians do not fully understand why some people develop disorders and others don’t.
Changes in the brain are the best indicator that future mental health difficulties may arise. Since a large portion of brain changes occur during adolescence, it’s a vital developmental period to study. A technique called brain fingerprinting is a new approach to studying these changes in the brain.
This article will discuss this new technique, and explore how mental health professionals use brain fingerprinting to inform intervention and improve treatment approaches.
Adolescence and Brain Development
Adolescence is the developmental period between childhood and adulthood that typically occurs between 10 and 19 years of age.1 Puberty often marks the beginning of adolescence, and continues through young adulthood. An incredible amount of physical, psychological, social, and emotional change occurs during this period.
One psychological change that may occur during adolescence is the development of a mental health disorder. Studies show that most mental disorders emerge during adolescence. About half of the most common mental health conditions present during adulthood appear by 14 years of age, and about 75 percent occur by 25 years old.2 These facts about when the symptoms of a mental health disorder first appear – called the age of onset – demonstrate the importance of studying adolescence to understand mental health.
Researchers dedicate their time and energy to uncovering new insights into the mystery of mental disorders. Mental health professionals know that a deeper understanding will help inform more effective approaches to care. Predicting the possibility of a mental health disorder means clinicians can intervene and provide early treatment, which improves clinical outcomes.
That’s where brain fingerprinting comes in.
What is Brain Fingerprinting?
Fingerprints are commonly used to identify people because no two individuals have the same fingerprint. Brains are similarly unique. Every person’s brain is as unique as their fingerprint – and each brain becomes more individualized through experience and age. Researchers use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map a person’s brain and create their brain fingerprint.3
This technique offers insight into how a person’s brain works. It also allows researchers to determine commonalities between people and identify differences. These fingerprints might indicate things such as why some people behave in certain ways or develop a mental health disorder while others do not.
Collecting and analyzing brain fingerprints gives researchers an idea of what typical brain function looks like. By identifying the similarities among hundreds of brain scans they can better identify the differences that make individuals unique.
Brain Fingerprinting and Mental Health
Researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia saw the need to study adolescent brain development and its relationship to mental health outcomes. They took the concept of brain fingerprints and used them to track brain development in adolescents, resulting in the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS).
The Sunshine Coast team trusts that brain fingerprinting is the future of mental illness prevention and treatment. Their recent research shows that it’s possible to predict mental health outcomes using the technique.4 The researchers looked at the network responsible for goal-oriented behavior. These networks tend to be less unique during adolescence because young people usually don’t have enough life experience to make extensive experience-based decisions. However, some adolescents have unique pathways at play even during their early years.
LABS results suggest that the more unique an adolescent’s brain, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety later in life. These unique pathways suggest a delay in the fine tuning of some brain functions can result in increased mental health issues.
The periodic, regular brain scans in the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study offer insight that traditional therapeutic observation can’t. Researchers can look for changes in brain activity during the precise times that participants report any shifts in mood or mental wellbeing. With up to 15 brain scans of some participants, the Sunshine Coast team has started to build a new approach to preventative mental health treatment.
How Can Brain Fingerprints Help Mental Health Professionals?
Brain fingerprints are a valuable tool for treating mental disorders. MRI brain scans give clinicians a different type of information than they receive during talk therapy sessions. While a patient can choose what to tell their therapist, an MRI cannot make choices: it shows what’s there – nothing more, nothing less.
Mental health professionals are better equipped to target and tackle mental health problems when they can monitor brain changes in real-time. Researchers from the LABS project have up to 15 brain scans on some of their participants. This detailed record lets them assess changes as they happen and implement treatment protocols before mental health symptoms escalate from mild to moderate, or moderate to severe.
This new advance in mental health treatment can give hope to mental health professionals, people with mental health disorders, and their families. Although brain fingerprints might sound like something right out of a science fiction novel, they’re here now, they’re real, and they have the potential to mitigate the significant harm caused by mental health disorders. LABS researchers refer to brain fingerprints as the “‘holy grail’ of neuroscience” and will continue to use their findings to shape the future of mental health treatment.
Finding Mental Health Treatment for Your Teen
Although brain fingerprinting is useful for researchers and the future of mental health treatment, you may need help for your teen right now. Evidence-based treatment programs are available to help your teen. Evolve Treatment Centers is a network of mental health treatment facilities throughout California. With locations in Los Angeles, Southern California, and the Bay Area, we provide your teen with the comprehensive, compassionate care they need.
Whether they have been to treatment before or they need help for the first time, Evolve Treatment Centers is here to walk alongside your family every step of the way. Please reach out to us to speak with an admissions specialist, learn more about the programs we offer, and determine which approach is the right fit for your child today.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2019). Stages of Adolescence.
- Current Opinion in Psychiatry. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature.
- The Conversation. (2015). Brain activity is as unique – and identifying – as a fingerprint.
- NeuroImage. (2022). A longitudinal study of functional connectome uniqueness and its association with psychological distress in adolescence.