Like a fingerprint, the connections of the human brain render us distinct from one another. In a study just published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Oslo revealed that such a unique, fingerprint-like pattern evolves during development and is sensitive to mental health. These findings suggest that such brain network maturation during the course of childhood and adolescence reflects an important aspect of healthy brain development, and may help develop better tools for finding the right diagnosis and treatments of mental illness.

Understanding why some children develop mental illness later in life is a major research task with important implications for patients and their families. The brains of children and adolescents are highly plastic, which allows for an enormous potential for learning and development in this period. However, in some children this plasticity comes at a cost. "These sensitive periods are therefore not only representing a major window for adaptation and opportunities, but is also when the brain is most vulnerable to environmental risk factors and when most mental disorders emerge" associate professor Lars T. Westlye says.

The researchers have analyzed brain-imaging data from a large number of children and adolescents. They used a technique called fingerprinting that attempts to identify individuals from repeated brain scans, to study how distinct each person's brain network is from one another. Interestingly, the older the study individuals, the easier it was to identify them correctly and there was a boost in fingerprinting accuracy in adolescence.

Lead author Tobias Kaufmann explains: "Strikingly, children and adolescents with initial symptoms of mental illness showed a developmental delay in the stabilization and individualization of their brain connections. Less distinct network patterns were associated with higher level of symptom burden".

The study has resolved important questions regarding brain development and mental health in adolescence. "Our results hopefully provide a small piece in the puzzle towards a better understanding of normal brain development and the diverging patterns this may take in some children. This may help us develop better tools for finding the right diagnosis and treatment", says Westlye.

The study is a collaboration between the Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT) at the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital, and the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo[CLB1] [JNK2] [JNK3] in Norway. The authors emphasize the importance of data sharing and large-scale international collaborations as part of this global effort. Thus, these novel findings encourage further development of biologically informed tools for early detection and prevention of mental illness.

Article: Delayed stabilization and individualization in connectome development are related to psychiatric disorders, Tobias Kaufmann, Dag Alnæs, Nhat Trung Doan, Christine Lycke Brandt, Ole A Andreassen & Lars T Westlye, Nature Neuroscience, doi: 10.1038/nn.4511, published online 20 February 2017.