Martin Fuessenegger, a biotech and bioengineering professor in the bio systems department at ETH Zürich, stated that it was the first time researchers had been able to access human brainwaves and transfer them via a wireless system to a gene network and thus regulate gene expression based on thought type. He stated the ability to use thoughts to control gene expression was a dream researchers had been attempting to fulfill for more than a decade.
A game, Mindflex, provided the inspiration for the new system involving gene regulation via thought control. In the game, a player has to wear a special headset that features a sensor placed on the forehead, which records the player’s brainwaves.
The electroencephalogram that is recorded is subsequently transmitted into the game’s environment, where it controls a fan that allows the player to move a small ball through an obstacle course using their thoughts.
Three Thought Types
Presented in Nature Communications by the bioengineers based in Basel, the system also employs an EEG headset, with the brainwaves being analyzed and transferred using Bluetooth to a control unit. The latter controls a field generator and the electromagnetic field it generates supplies an induction current to an implant.
An LED lamp within the implant goes on. This lamp puts out light in the near-infrared range, and lights up a culture chamber that contains cells that have been genetically modified. When this light hits the cells, they begin to make the desired protein.
Initially, the implant was tested on mice and in cultures of cells, with different test subjects controlling the unit. In the tests, researchers used SEAP, a human-model protein that is easy to detect and diffuses from the implant’s culture chamber into the bloodstream of the mouse.
To regulate how much protein was released, three states of mind were used to categorize the test subjects: concentration, meditation and bio-feedback. Those who were playing Minecraft, in other words who were concentrating, created average quantities of SEAP in the mice, while those who were meditating led to extremely high levels of the protein in the animals.
For the biofeedback category, the test subjects could see the implant’s LED light inside the mouse, and could consciously turn the light on and off using visual feedback. As they did so, the amounts of the protein in the mice’s bloodstreams varied accordingly.
According to Fussenegger, the ability to control genes in such a way is not only completely new, but also different because it is so simple.
Useful In Combating Neurological Problems?
The opto-genetic module that is sensitive to light and reacts to the near-infrared spectrum of light is of particular note in terms of progress. The light hits a protein that has been modified to be light-sensitive within the cells that have been genetically modified, which leads to an artificial signal cascade, causing SEAP to be produced.
Near-infrared light was chosen because it usually doesn’t harm human cells, but has the ability to penetrate deep into tissues and allows the operation of the implant to be tracked visually.
The system has been proven to be effective and efficient in both the human thought-controlled mouse system and in the human-cell culture. Fussenegger believes the implant could someday be used to treat a variety of neurological problems, including chronic headaches, epilepsy and back pain, by identifying certain brainwaves early on, which would lead to the production of particular agents or proteins by the implant at precisely the right time to counteract the problem.