Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Science fiction author Iain M. Banks wrote of a society in his Culture series in which individuals were physiologically enhanced or altered by implanting a consciously-controlled drug gland to deliver hormones or specific chemicals. Just by thinking about it, these glands provided people with "Calm" or enhanced "Focal" ability among other possibilities without side-effects. But, this type of medical technology has remained predominantly in the sci-fi realm until recently.
Combining advancements in synthetic biology, optogenetics, and brain-computer-interfaces, researchers published a paper in Nature Communications this week that suggests "mind-genetic interfaces" could soon become available as treatment options.
What does that mean? The scientists' system could one day allow people to use their own thought processes to control the expression of genes within their own bodies. When genes get expressed, they can be translated into proteins that serve certain cellular functions. So, if you have chronic pain, for instance, you could get your body to produce its intrinsic pain-relieving compounds just by thinking about it.
The system described by the researchers is still in its infancy – so far, they have only used human brain activity to test their implantable gene-delivery device in mice, not in people – but, the process is fairly straight-forward.
In the experiment, a coin-sized device was implanted under the skin of mice. The basic device consisted of three components: 1) a receiver-coil capable of picking up magnetic signals and converting them into an electrical current, 2) a near infrared LED powered by that current, and 3) a chamber for housing genetically-modified cells that respond selectively to the LED.
The mice were placed onto a magnetic field generator that received brain activity (EEG) signals via Bluetooth from people wearing NeuroSky's MindSet EEG headsets. The people responded to biofeedback, meditated, or concentrated on a game to change the level of their brain activity. The change in mental state altered the magnetic field being generated, and the amount of current created by the implanted device.
A set threshold of current (e.g. meditation) triggered the LED to turn on and illuminate the cells in the chamber of the device. In the same way that you can see a bright flashlight through your hand, the researchers knew the light was turning on or off because they could actually see the illumination through the mouse's skin.
The cells were specifically modified to express a human protein called SEAP whenever the LED turned on that would then diffuse across a membrane and into the mouse's bloodstream. The researchers were then able to determine that the levels of SEAP in the blood of the mice changed in accord with changes in the mental state of the people involved.
It's important to note that the cells, while modified from normal cells, are contained and isolated within the culture chamber of the device. They never actually come into contact with other cells in the body. To date, optogenetic methods have relied on the injection of genetically-modified cells into body tissues or (in the case of mice) genetically-modifying whole organisms. Neither of these methods are suitable for real-world therapeutic purposes. It will be interesting to see how long the cells in these devices remain viable once implanted, and how easily this particular system can be put into practice for human needs.
When it comes down to it, this is still mostly gimmick. Whoo-hoo! We used EEGs to control another device… However, if someone can figure out how to couple this control system with the genes that influence and control disease and disorders in people, we might yet find ourselves inside one of Iain Banks' novels. It really gives new meaning to the idea that "it's all in your head".