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Mind Control Turns Mouse Genes On and Off And Could Treat Diseases

An innovative experiment in mice shows how scientists could develop medications that dispense with the power of thought

(Colin Anderson/Blend Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Imagine you could take your heart medication just by thinking about it. Or that a small implantable device could monitor your brainwaves for the first signs of a seizure and, if it detected anything amiss, release a well-timed pulse of a drug. Your seizure would stop before it really started.

These sci-fi sounding scenarios are what one group of researchers is dreaming up with their latest experiment. They created and tested a system that let volunteers change the levels of a particular protein in a mouse’s bloodstream just by thinking about it, reports Ian Sample for the Guardian. The volunteers’ intentions were relayed wirelessly to a small device that held special cells and had been implanted under the mouse's skin. Those cells had been engineered to produce a molecule when exposed to light. Once formed, that molecule slipped out into the bloodstream and told the mouse’s genes to produce a protein called interferon. 

By looking at the light, the volunteers could learn how to control the device. Basically, the humans formed thoughts, which turned on the light, which changed the mouse’s genes. The Switzerland-based researchers reported their work in Nature Communications

As strange as the test sounds, it relied on two technologies that have been grabbing neuroscience headlines lately: Optogenetics, which harnesses light-sensitive proteins to switch genes on and off, and a brain-computer interface based on the same technology that allowed people to move mouse cursors and monkeys to control robotic arms with their mind. 

The mouse gene control device has a ways to go before people can use it to deliver medicine at a thought. Sample writes:

One of the toughest problems the scientists face is how to find reliable signals of illness in a fuzzy mass of brainwaves. But that is not all. They also need to know which conditions can be improved by activating certain genes in particular parts of the body. Another issue is more mundane. Over time, implants get covered with fibrotic scar tissue, which would hamper the release of any proteins from the implant.

Getting a fresh device might solve that last problem, at least until we figure out how to stop the scar tissue. But the other challenges haven’t dimmed the enthusiasm the experiment has generated:  “This is super innovative and very exciting,” neuroscientist Michael Bruchas of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri told Nature News. “You can go from biology to electronics back to biology; I think that’s powerful."

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