Scientists develop method to manipulate genes using mind-control

The wireless optogenetic device (above) was implanted in mice to turn genes on and off, and was activated by human brain signals picked up by EEG

James Vincent@jjvincent
Wednesday 12 November 2014 12:50
The wireless optogenetic implant.
The wireless optogenetic implant.

Scientists have created a method of switching on genes in mice using mind control in humans.

The method combines two cutting-edge scientific methods to achieve its effect: a headset that can differentiate between brainwave activity such as concentration or relaxation, and an implant that switches on genes genetically engineered to respond to light.

The work, led by ETH Zurich bioengineer Martin Fussenegger, is just an initial proof of concept, but the team behind it say it could one day provide a treatment mechanism for patients coping with chronic pain or epilepsy.

“At first you may ask why should I think something and then control my genes? I could push a button and [also] induce the LED,” said Fussenegger.

"The reason is, we've designed it for potential application for locked-in patients who can no longer communicate with the outside world other than with their mental activities and brainwaves. This sounds like science fiction but it's an obvious interconnection of different technologies."

Although the electroencephalography device (EEG) used in the study was relatively basic, essentially monitoring a binary signal of off or no, other research into brain computer interfaces (BCIs) have achieved more nuanced control.

These include paralysed patients in the US using brain signals to control prosthetic arms or move a cursor around a computer screen.

Similarly, the field of optogenetics – engineering cells and genes to respond to light controls – has been used to successfully manipulate the brains of mice to ‘delete’ bad memories and trigger courtship behaviour in flies.

However, despite this experiment’s successful merger of the two fields, plenty of hurdles remain. Scientist are still struggling to gain more than a basic understanding of how brain activity can be ‘read’ and optogenetics will continue to be hampered by the costly procedures for both genetic engineering and brain surgery.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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