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Controlling Genes With Your Mind

It's not as surprising as you think.
(Photo: 125992663@N02/Flickr)

(Photo: 125992663@N02/Flickr)

Scientists have figured out how to control genes with their minds.

You read that right. A team of bioengineers has developed a proof-of-concept system with which a person can regulate simple gene functions using electrical signals in his or her brain. Odd though it seems, it might one day be a useful medical tool, the team reports in Nature Communications.

Actually, it shouldn't be that surprising. The biology and neuroscience behind their technique isn't all that new or even complicated by modern standards. Biologists first began to understand how to control gene expression—the process that allows organisms to produce different kinds of cells from the same DNA—in E. coli during the 1970s. More recently, bioengineers have devised ways to regulate gene expression in mice and humans. Theoretically, doctors could use gene expression to treat disease through various relatively non-invasive techniques—for example, illuminating light-sensitive proteins that bind to particular, targeted genes in the brain could help treat depression.

You'd be forgiven at this point for wondering whether the work is the product of "because we can" thinking or even a mad scientist, but in the long term it might have practical medical value.

At the same time, brain scientists have stretched the boundaries of what we can do with our minds alone. Motivated in part by a desire to help those who've lost limbs, researchers have designed robotic arms a person can control using brain signals alone, and you can buy similar, though somewhat less sophisticated, devices online.

Still, it is something of a novelty to combine the two areas of technology into one. To do so, researchers at ETH Zurich's Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering first designed implants to be placed inside a group of mice. Each had three main parts: a wireless receiver used to power the device, a near-infrared light-emitting diode, and a semi-permeable chamber containing a variant of the bacteria Rhodobacter sphaeroides, which had been modified so that when near-infrared light shined on it, the bacteria would release a protein, secreted alkaline phosphatase, that plays a number of roles in humans, including regulating the immune-system protein interferon.

The power source is where mind control comes in. Using a commercially available headset that measures electrical signals on the scalp, a group of human test subjects trained themselves to control a brain-computer interface. The researchers then hooked the interface up to the implant's wireless power source, allowing humans to control gene expression in mice.

You'd be forgiven at this point for wondering whether the work is the product of "because we can" thinking or even a mad scientist, but in the long term it might have practical medical value, writes senior author Martin Fussenegger in an email. Doctors could use devices like the one his team designed to manage gene therapy through thoughts. Farther down the line, "it may become possible to capture brain wave signatures associated with chronic pain and epileptic seizures" ahead of time, and those signals might be used to trigger an implant to provide treatment before pain or a seizure strikes.

All indications suggest that's a long way off, however. For one thing, there remain ethical questions about using such implants, let alone having patients control them.