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Control genes with the help of thoughts

Researchers from ETH ZURICH succeeded in building the first ever gene network that can be controlled by our thoughts

Thoughts control an LED in the near-infrared range, which initiates the production of a molecule in a reaction cell. [Courtesy of Martin Fussenegger et al., ETH Zurich]
Thoughts control an LED in the near-infrared range, which initiates the production of a molecule in a reaction cell. [Courtesy of Martin Fussenegger et al., ETH Zurich]

[Translation by Dr. Nachmani Moshe]

Scientists have succeeded in developing an innovative method of gene regulation that allows thought-based brain waves to control the conversion of genes into proteins - a mechanism called gene expression. The inspiration for this development came from a game where brain waves are used to direct the path of a ball through an obstacle course.

"For the first time ever, we were able to connect to human brain waves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network and regulate the expression of the genes depending on the type of thought. The ability to control the expression of genes through the power of thoughts is a dream we have been chasing for about a decade," said the lead researcher. The source of inspiration for the innovative system for expressing genes through thoughts was the game called Mindflex, in which the player wears a pair of special headphones with detectors on the forehead that record the brain waves. The obtained electrical brain record (EEG) is transferred in the next step to the game environment. The electric brain register controls the fan that allows a small ball to move with the help of thoughts through an obstacle course.

The system, detailed in an article published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, also uses EEG headphones. The recorded brainwaves are analyzed and transmitted wirelessly via "blue tooth" (Bluetooth, an open standard for short-range wireless communication between different types of communication facilities) to a control center, which in turn controls an electromagnetic field generator; This field activates an implant that operates with an electric current. In the next step, a light is turned on inside the implant - an LED light that emits light in the near infrared range radiating on top of a culture dish containing cells that have undergone genetic changes. When the light reaches the cells, they start producing the desired protein.

The implant was initially tested in cell cultures and mice and its activity was controlled by the thoughts of several subjects. In their experiments, the researchers used the SEAP protein, an easily detectable human model protein that is released from the graft's culture dish into the mouse's bloodstream.

In order to regulate the amount of protein released, the subjects were divided according to three moods: biofeedback, meditation and concentration. Subjects who played the computer game Minecraft, i.e. those who were concentrated, produced average protein values ​​in the blood circulation of the mouse. When the subjects were completely relaxed (meditation) the researchers recorded very high protein values ​​in the blood of the subjects. As part of the biofeedback, the subjects watched the LED light of the implant in the mouse's body and managed to deliberately switch the LED lighting through visual feedback. This behavior produced variable amounts of the model protein in the mouse's bloodstream.

"The method of controlling genes in this way is completely new and is unique in its simplicity," the researchers explain. The light-sensitive optogenetic system that responds to radiation in the infrared range is particularly advanced - the light shines on a light-sensitive protein within the genes of altered cells and thereby initiates an artificial signal cascade, which ultimately results in the production of the SEAP protein. The researchers used radiation in the infrared range because it does not harm human cells, is able to penetrate deep into the tissue and makes it possible to visually monitor the function of the implant. The new system works correctly and efficiently in human cell culture environments and in the human-mouse system. The researchers expect that a thought-controlled implant will one day be able to help in the fight against neurological diseases, such as headaches and chronic back pain and epilepsy, by locating specific brain waves at an early stage that initiate and control the production of certain substances within the implant at the desired time and quantity.

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