The gene genie
Controlling genes with your thoughts
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4 | LAB+LIFE SCIENTIST - January 2015
(secreted alkaline phosphatase) for the tests, an easyto-detect human model protein which diffuses from the culture chamber of the implant into the mouse’s bloodstream. NIR light was used because it is generally
esearchers at ETH Zurich have created
not harmful to human cells, can penetrate deep into
the first gene network to be operated via brainwaves.
the tissue and enables the function of the implant to
Depending on the user’s thoughts, it can produce
be visually tracked.
various amounts of a desired molecule.
To regulate the quantity of released protein, the
The team, led by Martin Fussenegger from the
test subjects were categorised according to three states
Department of Biosystems (D-BSSE), sought to develop
of mind: biofeedback, meditation and concentration.
a gene regulation method that enables thought-specific
Test subjects who played Minecraft on the computer
brainwaves to control the conversion of genes into
(concentration) induced average SEAP values in the
proteins, called gene expression. They were inspired
bloodstream of the mice. When completely relaxed
by the game Mindflex, where the player wears a special
(meditation), the researchers recorded very high
headset with a sensor on the forehead that records
SEAP values in the test animals. For biofeedback, the
brainwaves. The registered electroencephalogram (EEG)
test subjects observed the LED light of the implant in
is then transferred into the playing environment, where
the body of the mouse and were able to consciously
it controls a fan that enables a small ball to be thought-
switch the LED light on or off via the visual feedback.
guided through an obstacle course.
This was reflected by the varying amounts of SEAP in
The researchers’ system similarly makes use of an
the bloodstream of the mice.
EEG headset. The recorded brainwaves are analysed
“For the first time, we have been able to tap into
and wirelessly transmitted via Bluetooth to a controller,
human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene
which in turn controls a field generator that generates an
network and regulate the expression of a gene depending
electromagnetic field; this supplies an implant with an
on the type of thought,” said Fussenegger. “Being able
induction current. An LED lamp in the implant, which
to control gene expression via the power of thought is
emits light in the near-infrared (NIR) range, turns on
a dream that we’ve been chasing for over a decade.”
and illuminates a culture chamber containing genetically
The study has been published in the journal
modified cells. When the NIR light illuminates the cells,
Nature Communications. Fussenegger hopes a thought-
it triggers an artificial signal cascade, resulting in the
controlled implant could one day help to combat
production of the desired protein.
neurological diseases, such as chronic headaches, back
The implant was initially tested in cell cultures and
pain and epilepsy, by detecting specific brainwaves at an
mice, and controlled by the thoughts of various test
early stage and triggering and controlling the creation
subjects. The researchers chose the glycoprotein SEAP
of certain agents in the implant at exactly the right time.
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