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Brain scan might determine your age within a year

Scientists are using structural MRIs on hundreds of people ages 3 to 20 to assess age. More than 92 percent of the time, it turns out, those scans don't lie.

The "developmental clock" shows increases and decreases in the brain's cortical surface, as well as the dynamic cascade of many other brain measures that change with age.
University of California San Diego School of Medicine

If you're prone to lying about your age, steer clear of structural magnetic resonance imaging. When used to scan your brain, no matter how good (or bad) you may look, a new imaging technique that uses MRI won't lie. In fact, it probably knows your age to the exact year.

"We have uncovered a 'developmental clock' of sorts within the brain -- a biological signature of maturation that captures age differences quite well, regardless of other kinds of differences that exist across individuals," Timothy Brown of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine says in a news release.

Brown and researchers from nine other universities report today in the journal Current Biology that MRI scans of 885 people from age 3 to 20 were able to identify 231 biomarkers which, when analyzed together, determined age with more than 92 percent accuracy. That's the highest of any biological measure used to date, they say.

Maturation timing, they write, turns out to be "tightly controlled."

The team says it achieved this unprecedented accuracy by combining all 231 biomarkers instead of analyzing them one by one. Brown adds that the "regularity in this maturity metric among typically developing children suggests that it might be sensitive to detecting abnormality as well."

It remains to be seen whether the researchers will see the same results when studying a wider range of ages. Being one year off is a much bigger error with a 3-year-old (where a year makes up a third of the kid's life), for instance, than with a 100-year-old (where it makes up just 1 percent).

Still, the study marks a step toward better understanding how our brains can reveal our precise chronological ages.