Researchers implanted a device into
mice which contained an LED light and a chamber full of cells whose gene
expression could be controlled by volunteers' brain activity.
Brainwave activity from
volunteers wearing wireless headsets switched the light on. This led to
expression of a light-responsive gene in the genetically-engineered cells, and
thus production of a protein, which was released into the bloodstream of the
They hope their experiments could
represent the first step towards a system allowing people who are fully
conscious but have difficulty communicating - such as in locked-in syndrome - to self-administer their medication.
'Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a
dream that we've been chasing for over a decade,' said Professor Martin
Fussenegger, from ETH Zurich in Basel, Switzerland, and lead author on the study.
In the study, the researchers were
able to modulate the amount of protein released by changing the headset-wearing
volunteers' state of mind — for instance making them concentrate, or relax. Ultimately,
the volunteers learnt to directly control the LED light by will alone (a
control technique known as bio-feedback).
'In all of these different mental states, we saw very specific brain
activities and these were translated via the LED to very specific illumination
of the designer cells. In response those [genes] produced proteins that were then
circulating in the animal,' Professor Fussenegger told BBC News.
In addition to a potential application in locked-in syndrome, Professor Fussenegger
says the technique could be used to detect aberrant brainwave patterns in
neurological diseases, triggering a rapid treatment response. He told New Scientist that he hopes to
start clinical trials within ten years.
But Professor Geraint Rees of the
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, who was not involved in
the study, told BBC News that interpreting
brainwaves is very difficult, which might limit the technology's usefulness. 'We
don't yet have a complete understanding of how to translate what we can record
on the surface of somebody's scalp into a pattern of thought,' he said.
The study was published in Nature Communications.