Health

Mind control used to switch on genes

brain Image copyright ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Swiss researchers have developed a way to "switch on" specific genes using the power of the mind.

Their system uses human brainwaves to turn on an infrared light that then activates a gene to start making a protein in specially engineered cells.

The scientists believe the futuristic technology could be used to treat in diseases such as epilepsy.

Their study using mice and people, published in Nature Communications, shows it works in principle.

Mind control ramped up production of a protein in an implant placed under the skin of mice.

The researchers created a genetically engineered cell in which the presence of near infrared light triggered the switching on of a gene and subsequently the production of a protein called SEAP.

They placed the cells in a chamber in a small implant that also contained a wirelessly controlled infrared light and inserted it under the skin of mice.

Image copyright Martin Fussenegger

Power of thought

Volunteers wearing headsets were asked to play a computer game called Mindflex, in which the movement of a ball is controlled by thought.

When they concentrated on the game, their brainwaves turned on a field generator under the mice, switching on the infrared light and initiating the cascade within the implant to generate the SEAP protein.

The protein was able to seep out from the implant into the bloodstream, where it was later measured by the researchers.

Brainwave patterns produced by meditation were also shown to turn on the implant, which could be seen to light up under the skin.

Study leader Martin Fussenegger, professor of biotechnology and bioengineering at the Swiss Institute of Technology, said: "Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we've been chasing for over a decade."

This study was the first proof of concept of a technology that could ultimately be used to as a medical therapy, he added.

For example, the specific brainwave patterns that occurred prior to an epileptic seizure could be used to trigger the release of treatment before the patient was even aware it was happening, he said.

"Or in patients with chronic pain, we believe there are specific pain patterns. And we would like to filter these and have the implant produce treatment that prevents the onset or attenuates the full pain situation."

Martyn Boutelle, professor of biomedical sensors engineering at Imperial College London, said: "By linking together these very different technologies into a clear pathway the authors show first proof of principle of how, far into the future, it may be possible for patients to learn to use mental states to control bioengineered implants that release relief-giving therapy."

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