Neuroscientists say they can predict whether or not someone will die young simply by scanning their brains.
Researchers working at Imperial College London looked at the MRI brain scans of thousands of individuals alongside long-term studies of hundreds of elderly patients and found that the older a person’s brain age, the more likely they are to develop negative health traits.So detailed is the research that they say they can predict a person is likely to die before they reach 80 if they have a brain age eight years older than their real age for a man or two years older for a woman.
The potential for doctors to predict and prevent early death is huge but there are obvious implications for individual patients too.
I went along to get my brain scanned and waited patiently for the 20 minutes it took lead researcher Dr James Cole to analyse my brain using specialist software.
It turns out I have the brain age of a teenager despite being 31.
As amused as the Sky newsroom was about my 15-year-old brain, it was good to hear.
There will no doubt be ethical questions about whether or not patients would want to know their future health but the tests are still many years off being ready for mass-use.
“In the long run it would be great if we could do this accurately enough so that we could do it at an individual level,” said Dr James Cole.
“Someone could go to their doctor, have a brain scan and the doctor could say ‘your brain is 10 years older than it should be’, and potentially advise them to change their diet or lifestyle or to start a course of treatment.
“However, at the moment, it’s not sufficiently accurate to be used at that sort of individual level.”
At the heart of the method is a technique first developed in 2010 that measures brain volume and uses machine learning to estimate the overall loss of grey and white matter – a hallmark of the ageing process in the brain.
Dr Cole took this basic technique and refined it by testing it on publicly available datasets of MRI scans of more than 2,000 healthy people’s brains, resulting in normalised maps which accurately predicted the person’s age.
Following this fine-tuning, it was then applied to scans of 669 people from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, a well-studied group of adults all born in 1936 who had undergone MRI scans at age 73, giving them a score for predicted brain age.
Scientists say the factors that could alter a person’s brain are to do with healthy eating and exercise as well as alcohol intake and smoking.
GP Dr Andrew Boyd told Sky News: “It’s just another bit of scientific evidence that adds to the whole host of other things that are out there that say that if you look after your health then the brain’s going to look after itself as well.”