“This may be a bit scary.”
That’s the preface Roderic Pettigrew, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, gave to the audience at a symposium on the Human Connectome Project this week as he talked to participants about brain scans being used to identify people, much like a fingerprint.
The Human Connectome Project, a $40 million endeavor to map out all of the brain’s connections, has been ongoing since 2010. The research itself — a painstaking effort to scan and analyze the brains of thousands of adults — has shown that each person’s brain activity is highly unique and can be used to identify individuals with 99 percent accuracy.
The “scary” implications Pettigrew was most likely referring to in his speech were posited in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, where brain-reading was used to identify — and classify — people, allowing police to apprehend criminals before they could act.
That future may not be that far off. One paper associated with the project, published last year in Nature Neuroscience, described the way the brain’s organization — its connectome — vastly differed between individuals. This suggests that a visual snapshot of the brain could be used as a “fingerprint” to accurately identify subjects from a large group. Researchers analyzed fMRI brain scans taken when people were resting or engaged with a task and found that their brains showed unique patterns of connectivity no matter what the person is doing.
The study also suggested that a person’s connectome could be used to make predictions about their intelligence — that is, how individuals will perform on certain tests or, as a different study in the journal Science showed, on memory and reading tasks.
Collaborators at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota, who make up one of the two scientific consortia working on the Human Connectome Project, are uploading the brain scan data of over 1,200 subjects to a database online so it can be freely accessed by neurologists worldwide. The research, however, is far from over: Now that the project has a baseline idea of what the average middle-aged adult connectome looks like, it’s going to focus on scanning brains that deviate from their project’s norm, such as very young or very old people, or those afflicted with disease.