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Thought-Controlled Gene Expression

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Scientists at ETH Zurich have constructed a networked system in which gene expression can be controlled remotely by human thought, and they hope that eventually thought-controlled brain implants will help combat neurological diseases.

A team of researchers led by Martin Fussenegger implanted a living mouse with designer cells that can be controlled with light. As a story by John Hewett in Extremetech.com notes, that's challenging enough, but what they did next is jaw-dropping. Electrical signals from the brain of a human wearing a brain-computer interface (BCI) remotely activated genes in the mouse's brain implant by turning on the light. The mouse implant was wirelessly linked to the human monitor by a Bluetooth device.

A story in The Scientist by Jyoti Madhusoodanan says this achievement is the first time two known technologies, optogenetics, which uses light sensitive protein to control gene expression, and EEG based BCI, which harnesses the brain's electrical potential to create a physical output, have been used this way. Synthetic biologist Timothy Lu at MIT, who was not involved in the research, describes the work as "awesome."

BCIs that capture the electrical neural impulses in the brain have been used in the past to control cursors and prosthetic devices. Fussenegger's team developed a gene-regulation method that enables thought-specific brain waves to control gene expression, which means the conversion of genes into proteins.

A Physics.org story says one inspiration for the new system was the game Mindflex, in which players wear a sensor on the forehead that records brainwaves that are transferred to the playing environment by EEG. The EEG controls a fan that enables a small ball to be thought-guided through an obstacle course.

Researchers discovered that the state of mind of the human participant regulated the quantity of an experimentally used protein released by the implant into the mouse's blood stream. Human participants were asked play a focused game of Minecraft for 10 minutes, control their brain activity in response to a visual light display, or just relax or meditate. "In all three mental states, the brain produced very specific (electrical) signatures," Fussenegger told The Scientist.

"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," Fussenegger says in the Phys.org story.

Eventually, the Extremetech story says, researchers hope the thought controlled implant and the controlling thoughts will exist in one person-or perhaps two appropriately synchronized persons. The idea is that one day someone with a mind-controlled implant might be able to think about something-say you want more adrenaline or more dopamine, or insulin,-- and have the implant dutifully trigger release of whatever chemical is needed.

The extremely complex research that led to this extraordinary breakthrough is described in Nature Communications.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  science 

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