EEG sleep study adds to evidence of a neural fingerprint

April 28, 2011

Consistent “signature” brainwave patterns (first noticed in short-term studies of adults) are so robust that they’re also detectable over a matter of years in the turbulent brains of teens, researchers at Brown University and the University of Zurich have found.

The researchers recruited 19 volunteers who were 9 or 10 years old and 26 who were 15 or 16 years old to sleep for two consecutive nights in the lab while EEG electrodes recorded oscillations in their brains during both REM and non-REM sleep. For each child, they repeated the measurements about two years later.

The researchers fed mathematical descriptions of the EEG waves into a computer armed with an algorithm to group waves of similar shapes and frequencies together. The computers had no information about which waves came from which night from which teen, but the algorithm ended up matching all four nights of sleep for most of the kids, a sign of their consistent but unique nature.

“Knowing this gives us another tool to examine brain function and stability,” said co-author Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at E.P. Bradley Hospital. Showing that there are these fingerprints could open up future possibilities for predicting schizophrenia or depression, for example.

Their work appears in the April 27 online edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.

I asked the researchers if in theory, this algorithm could predict potential criminals, or even impending criminal acts, as in the movie “Minority Report” or as in “brain fingerprinting,” especially for those persons with a family history of psychopathology (such potential participants were excluded from the study). No response yet. — Ed.