Scientists have been able to tinker with the genes of other organisms for some time now—that’s nothing new. But controlling genes in another animal using only your thoughts? Sounds a rather insane idea that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sci-Fi movie, but it turns out it’s now possible, thanks to a newly-developed mind-controlled system.
As described in the journal Nature Communications, the system works by using brain waves from human participants to activate a light inside a mouse’s brain, which then switches on a particular set of genes. This marks the first time that synthetic biology has been linked to the mind, and the authors believe this work could lead to the development of novel ways to treat medical conditions. For example, the technology could one day be used to instantly deliver drugs when epileptic patients are about to experience a seizure. However, the authors note that the study is very much proof-of-concept at the moment.
To create the system, scientists from ETH Zurich married up two different technologies that were already in existence. The first is a brain computer interface (BCI) device that is capable of processing brain waves recorded by an electroencephalography (EEG) headset. Recently, this system allowed paralysed people to power a robotic arm using their thoughts. The second is a method called optogenetics which uses light to control specific events within cells.
The researchers started off by inserting a gene from a species of bacteria that uses light as a source of energy into designer human kidney cells. This gene is responsible for the production of a protein that is responsive to near-infrared light. The cells were engineered in such a way that when this protein is activated, a cascade of events are triggered that ultimately switch on a different gene that encodes a specific human protein. Alongside an infrared LED light that can be activated wirelessly, these cells were put inside a tiny implant that was inserted into the brain of a mouse.
Next, the researchers recorded the brain waves of eight volunteers while they were either meditating or concentrating. These activities produce different signatures of brain activity, which can then be recognized and processed by the EEG headset they were wearing. This information was then fed wirelessly into the brain implant, and if a particular threshold of brain activity was reached, the LED was switched on.
Impressively, participants were able to successfully turn on the LED using either mental state. Because the implant's surface was semi-permeable, the researchers were able to prove that the light-sensitive system was working because they could detect the newly-synthesized human protein in the mouse’s blood.
Alongside being extremely cool, the researchers are hopeful that this technology could one day be turned into a built-in drug delivery system. The mind-control part may therefore seem unnecessary at first glance, but the idea is that it could be used to help patients that can’t communicate with others, for example individuals with locked-in syndrome, to self-medicate. If the implant can be developed to pick up brain waves that indicate a seizure is coming in, the system could also be used to help epileptics. While there’s much more that needs to be done, the team is hopeful that the system could be ready for human trials within the next ten years.