Every Person's Brain Is Unique, Like Our Fingerprints: Study

Researchers at the University of Zurich believe no two people have the same brain anatomy. Getty Images

Just like our fingerprints, our brains are unique, according to researchers.

A combination of genetic factors and our experiences shape the anatomy of our brains, a team of neuropsychologists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland has found in a study published in the journal Nature.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion when they tried to answer whether, like the tips of our fingers, the makeup of an individual's brain could be used to identify him or her.

Previously, the team found that a person's life shaped their brain anatomy. A musician's brain, they found, was an ideal model for investigating the links between certain professions and neuroplasticity in the organ.

But the team believes even a short-term event, like keeping one's left arm still for a fortnight, could thin the brain's cortex, which controls the movement of that limb.

Dr. Lutz Jäncke, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Zurich and lead author of the study, said in a statement: "We suspected that those experiences having an effect on the brain interact with the genetic makeup so that over the course of years every person develops a completely individual brain anatomy."

The new finding is significant, considering that just three decades ago scientists believed the brain had few or no individual characteristics, said Jäncke. Thanks to magnetic resonance imaging, which digitizes brain scans, our understanding of the organ has progressed leaps and bounds in recent years.

"With our study, we were able to confirm that the structure of people's brains is very individual," said Jäncke.

To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of 191 healthy people between the ages of 64 and 85 years old three times over the course of two years.

The scientists investigated more than 450 anatomical features, including total brain volume, thickness of the cortex and volumes of gray and white matter.

These tests revealed each individual had unique brain characteristics, which the neuropsychologists used to identify participants with almost 100 percent accuracy.

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Jäncke said: "The combination of genetic and nongenetic influences clearly affects not only the functioning of the brain, but also its anatomy."

But he explained it's unlikely brain anatomy would replace fingerprints when it came to identifying an individual. MRIs are too expensive and time-consuming when compared with the tried, tested and inexpensive method of taking fingerprints.

Among the limitations of the study, the authors acknowledged, was the limited number of times the participants were evaluated. Moving forward, the team plans to continue studying the participants for the next two to three years, and will use their findings to validate existing results.