Playing a computer game or letting your mind go to its happy place might one day ease a migraine, administer drugs or prevent epileptic seizures, according to Swiss bioengineers who pulled off a strange mind-over-gene trick.
The researchers took advantage of a technique that engineers genes to switch into action in response to light input. But instead of just flipping on a light, they got brain waves to trip the switch.
Neither element by itself is all that novel these days. Synthetic biology and cybernetics have brought us the ability to insert DNA that responds to light into the regulatory programming of a gene. Electroencephalogram (EEG) receivers, which detect voltage changes from brain cells, have been linked to computers to control movement of prosthetic limbs or to play computer games. Hooking that up in tandem was the trick.
"A brain is essentially nothing else but electricity – the nerve cells firing electricity around as our brain thinks," said bioengineer Martin Fussenegger of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, lead investigator of the study published online Tuesday in Nature Communications. "So we have electricity, which can then be linked to the light, and the light can then be linked to gene expression. If we daisy-chain these features, it allows us to control transgenes by the power of our thoughts."
The gene they used isn't as important as the concept itself – at least not yet. They chose one that triggered production of a protein that's easy to see and measure, to figure out if their synthetic signaling pathway would work. Still, these were human brain waves controlling the inner workings of cells derived from human kidney stem cells -- albeit injected in a mouse.
The human volunteers needed little training beyond learning to play Minecraft, or taking relaxing breaths and thinking pleasant thoughts, Fussenegger said. Once they learned to associate such mental states with the light rigged to the mouse, they readily tinkered with the rodent's genetic biochemistry.
Scientists aren't really after this kind of purposeful mind control of genetic activity - after all, it's a lot easier to just push a button to turn on implanted light-sensitive DNA.
"What we intend to do is to capture pathological brain wave patterns," Fussenegger said.
That way, Fussenegger said, the brain waves could automatically trigger genes involved in pain mitigation, or perhaps genes engineered to administer medicine for those who are "locked in" by degenerative brain diseases.
A proof of concept is always a crucial step in science, but it's also a baby step. Even if this strange bit of sci-fi wi-fi leads in the right direction, there are some foreseeable chasms to bridge en route to a world in which we think our way to health.
Scientists would have to accurately identify brain waves associated with the onset of acute pain or a seizure, for example, then engineer and insert a synthetic signaling pathway that could be tripped by those waves, while not creating lots of error pathways and false alarms.
Still, Fussenegger mused: "Maybe, eventually, we could produce drugs in our body just by having a normal life and playing a computer game."