A system that allows a person to use their thoughts alone to switch on a gene in a batch of cultured cells, or even in a mouse, has been developed by scientists in Switzerland.
Writing in Nature Communications, ETH Zurich researcher Marc Folcher and his colleagues engineered into a batch of cells a bacterial gene coding for a light-sensitive chemical similar to the rhodopsin used by the eyes to enable us to see. This was coupled to a second gene that acted as a reporter and could be turned on by shining near-infrared light onto these cells. A lamp producing this light was linked to a computer that was eavesdropping on the brainwaves of a human volunteer.
When this subject thought or meditated in a certain way the right pattern of brain waves were produced, triggering the computer to turn on the infrared light, bathing the cells that were growing in an adjacent dish. This activated the light-sensitive gene, in turn switching on the reporter gene, which the team could detect.
Next they implanted the light-sensitive cells into mice and were able to show that, again, using the power of thought, a human subject could turn on the expression of the reporter gene, this time inside an animal.
Finally the researchers developed a tiny wireless implant comprising a coil to pick up power and an LED light source. Placed under the skin of test mice, the device could be turned on in the same way where it could activate expression of the reporter gene in cells implanted next to it.
This is a proof of concept, the team say, of how devices could be developed in future that would use the power of thought to achieve genetic control over implants and other cybernetic devices. A diabetic patient might, for instance, be equipped with an insulin-secreting implant containing cells that could control blood sugar through the power of thought alone rather than having to reach for an insulin syringe.