Controlling genes with the power of thought

Thoughts control a near infra-red LED, which starts the production of a molecule in a reaction chamber.
Martin Fussenegger, ETH Zurich

In the game Mindflex, the player wears a headset with a sensor that records brainwaves. The electroencephalogram (EEG) controls a fan that allows a small ball to be thought-guided through an obstacle course.

The game inspired bioengineers in Basel to develop a method of regulating genes by means of thought-specific brainwaves to control the conversion of genes into proteins.

"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," said Martin Fussenegger, professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Department of Biosystems in Basel, who led the experiment, recently presented in Nature Communications.

"Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we have been chasing for over a decade," he said.

The bioengineers fitted human volunteers with a wireless headset that monitored their brainwaves and which was connected to an implant in a mouse that could change its genes. With practice, the volunteers found they could turn the gene on or off in the mouse, by changing their state of mind, from concentrating to relaxed.

The hope is that the system can lead to human therapies that monitor brainwaves for signs of illness and then release treatments into the body automatically. Fussenegger said he hoped to see clinical trials in people with epilepsy or chronic pain within five years.

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