November 14, 2014 | By Varun Saxena
Simply wishing away pain is not as far-fetched as you probably think, research from Swiss scientists shows. Using electroencephalography, they were able to harness thought-specific brain waves to convert genes into proteins, or what’s known as gene expression.
“For the first time, we have been able to tap into human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network and regulate the expression of a gene depending on the type of thought. Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we’ve been chasing for over a decade,” said Martin Fussenegger, professor of biotechnology at ETH Zurich University, in a release.
|The near-infrared LED light that triggers production of proteins via genetically modified cells in reaction chamber–Courtesy of ETH Zurich|
An experimental implant was put inside mice, and human test subjects were able to control the device using thought, thus controlling the release of a protein into the mice’s bloodstream.
It works like this: First an EEG headset analyzes and transmits the brainwaves to a controller via Bluetooth. The controller then instructs a field generator to make an electromagnetic current field, which powers the implant. Once the implant’s near-infrared red light goes on, genetically modified cells in a culture chamber start producing the selected protein.
For the experiments, the researcher chose the protein SEAP as the production target. Human test subjects were able to turn LED light on or off depending their level of concentration. By concentrating on the computer game Minecraft or meditating, the test subjects turned on the light, and more SEAP was produced. The subjects were also able to consciously switch the LED light on or off when they saw the light inside the body of the mouse, according to the university press release.
“Controlling genes in this way is completely new and is unique in its simplicity,” said Fussenegger in the release. He hopes that a thought-powered implant can be used in future for the treatment of neurological diseases, like chronic headaches, back pain and epilepsy. It would work by detecting certain brain waves and using them to trigger the releases of therapeutic molecules via the the implant, similar to what the team was able to do experimentally in mice.
More details are available in the researchers’ study in Nature Communications.
The MIT Technology review says the Fussenegger team’s breakthrough has applications to deep-brain stimulation, which is already being used to stop the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. Perhaps the technique’s electrodes can be replaced by fiber optics that emit pulses of light to control the brain.