Earlier this year, two scientists split by entire continents sent each other a message using brain signals alone. Then just last week, scientists figured out how to use thoughts to manipulate another person’s hand. Now, scientists at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have invented a mind-control system that enables a person to use only their thoughts to change the genes inside a mouse.
The system includes a wireless electroencephalography (EEG) headset, which monitors the brainwaves of the wearer and transmits those to an implant in the mouse. The implant has been fitted with a tiny red LED light and a cluster of special cells that have been genetically engineered to respond to the light. The person in the headset then needs to change their mental state from either concentration or relaxation, or vice-versa, and this change will turn the implanted light on or off inside the mouse.
If the light is switched on, specific genes inside the light-sensitive cells will be activated, and this will initiate the production of proteins. The proteins will seep out of the implant and into the mouse. The genes can also be switched off and the production of proteins halted when the headset-wearer uses their brainwaves to deactivate the LED light. This means they can use their mind to control how much protein is being depositing into the mouse’s bloodstream.
Why would anyone want to do that? Genes and the proteins they produce are how a body continues to grow new, healthy cells, and when the regular stream of protein production is for some reason held up, disease will ensue. So while this system doesn’t sound too practical in its current form, it acts as a proof of concept that the team hopes to expand on to provide a new kind of ‘in-built’ drug delivery system for humans.
"At first you may ask why should I think something and then control my genes? I could push a button and [also] induce the LED,” bioengineer and lead researcher Martin Fussenegger told Melissa Hogenboom at BBC News. "The reason is, we've designed it for potential application for locked-in patients who can no longer communicate with the outside world other than with their mental activities and brainwaves. This sounds like science fiction but it's an obvious interconnection of different technologies.”
Fussenegger doesn’t even think it’ll take that long to go from mice to people - he’s hoping to get the system ready for clinical trials within the next five years, working with patients dealing with epilepsy or chronic pain. He told Ian Sample at The Guardian that he thinks the whole system - both the EEG part and the LED light and engineered cells package - could be combined into one minuscule device that can be implanted in a patient, say, once every four months.
“We’re familiar with prosthetic devices, such as artificial hearts and replacement hips, but we’ve not transferred the concept to the molecular world,” Fussenegger told Sample. “This is where I believe our mind-control device could set an example. If I’m right, which is far from certain, this could change the treatment strategies of the future."