Mind over matter?
I’m fascinated by the recent report in the journal Nature Communications that researchers at ETH Zurich have assembled a system that has allowed humans to control gene expression in a mouse by doing nothing more than adopting different mental states, or thinking different thoughts.
The approach fuses advances in cybernetics with those in synthetic biology by connecting a wireless headset that monitors brainwaves to an implant in the mouse that alter the expression of certain rodent genes. A person wearing the device could alter how much protein was made from a gene in the mouse by changing his or her state of mind from concentrating to relaxed or vice-versa. With practice, volunteers found that they could turn the gene on or off in the mouse at will, and thereby raise or lower the levels of protein circulating in the animal’s blood system.
Volunteers were asked either to meditate or concentrate while wearing a headset that picks up their brainwaves. These brainwaves were beamed wirelessly and the signal used to control an electromagnetic field generated by a platform that a mouse is sitting on.
The mouse had been fitted with a small implant containing copper coils, a light-emitting diode (LED) and a tiny container of genetically modified cells. When the electromagnetic field switched on beneath the mouse, an electric current was induced in the implant’s coils which made the LED shine a beam of red light. The cells had been engineered to respond to this light by switching on a particular gene, causing the cells to make a new protein which seeps out of the implant’s membrane.
In a series of follow-up experiments, volunteers wearing the headset could see when the LED came on, because the red light shone through the mouse’s skin. In time, they learned to control the light – and so the gene – simply by thinking.
So has is this achieved in practice? Quoting from the Nature Communications paper, “An electroencephalography (EEG)-based brain–computer interface (BCI) processing mental state-specific brain waves programs an inductively linked wireless-powered optogenetic implant containing designer cells engineered for near-infrared (NIR) light-adjustable expression of the human glycoprotein SEAP (secreted alkaline phosphatase). The synthetic optogenetic signalling pathway interfacing the BCI with target gene expression consists of an engineered NIR light-activated bacterial diguanylate cyclase (DGCL) producing the orthogonal second messenger cyclic diguanosine monophosphate (c-di-GMP), which triggers the stimulator of interferon genes (STING)-dependent induction of synthetic interferon-β promoters.”
Thus far, the system has been used to control gene expression only in cell cultures and mice. But the system’s creators are hopeful that mind-controlled gene switches, could be refined to control gene expression in people.
The experiment could lead to the development of a radical new approach to the treatment of diseases. Scientists hope it is a first step towards the development of a system that will monitor brainwaves for signs of illnesses and automatically release medicines into the body to treat them.
The authors speculate that the approach could add a new dimension to electronic-mechanical implants such as heart and brain pacemakers, cochlear hearing aids etc. Longer term, it may prove possible to devise systems to combat neurological diseases such as chronic headaches, back pain, and epilepsy. After detecting specific brainwaves at an opportune time, the systems could instigate the production of therapeutic proteins exactly when needed.
However, significant technical challenges lie ahead. One of the toughest problems is how to find reliable signals of illness in a fuzzy mass of brainwaves. It will also be necessary to establish which medical conditions can be improved by activating certain genes in particular parts of the body. Another issue is more mundane. Over time, implants get covered with fibrotic scar tissue, which could hamper the release of any proteins from the implant, so it may be necessary to replace the implants regularly.
Last, but by no means least, there are the ethical issues to be addressed. The public at large will require reassurance and implementation of safeguards to prevent the misuse of this technology – the idea that one person can exert control over gene expression in another person simply by thinking about it is likely to unleash waves of paranoia and tap into some of the wilder dystopian visions of science fiction. Scientists, the medical profession, ethicists and governments will need to consult and work with the public at large in an open dialogue to seek ways of addressing these ethical issues.