Consciousness controls genes

Brain streams regulate a genetic switch and enable an implant that enzymes engaged in the bloodstream

Brain-computer interfaces can control neuroprometheses. Swiss researchers have now transferred this approach to synthetic biology: they constructed a genetic switch that reacts to light signals and excludes the production of an enzyme. Hirnitre can activate this switch, even if it is planned as part of an implant in the body of a mouse. This procedure was able to serve in the future to direct the administration of drugs through consciousness.

The test person sits in a comfortable armchair and looks at the screen. Electrodes on your head measure the brain streams, and a computer is looking for patterns that indicate concentration or meditation. When crossroading a threshold, the computer sends a signal to an apparatus in which a mouse is sitting over a strong magnet. The magnetic field builds up and an implant in the body of the mouse begins to light up red. Gene are turned on, and human cells in the implant begin to express an enzyme into the bloodstream. What sounds like Science Fiction has recently become realitat recently: For the first time, a person has controlled the activity of genes with his consciousness.

Thoughts control the strong of the near-infrared light, which stimulates the formation of a protein. Image: m. Fussenegger, ETH Zurich

This experiment was made in the laboratory of Martin Fussenegger at ETH Zurich. Fussenegger and his employees want to make synthetic biology usable for medicine, and some of their ideas are far ahead of the future. So in your youngest work (ref. 1): The researchers combined techniques from different research branches to submit to the regulation of synthetic circuits of a new form of control.

Light activates genetic switch

The Swiss scientists are specialists for synthetic biology, but this time they also handed back on techniques of optogenetics and neuroprosthetics. The starting point is a brain computer interface: An electrode records the human brain activity, a computer then analyzes the pattern and searches for unique signals. These are already used to control a variety of neuroprostheses: mechanical gripping, rolling chairs of framed or even the cursor on a screen. The Swiss used this technique to produce a light pulse.

Light can control genetic processes as the young field of optogenetics has successfully proven. The laboratory of Fussenegger poked here and constructed from three genes a switching element, which is activated by light. As a light receptor, a protein from the bacterium Rhodobacter Sphaeroides, which recognizes infrared light and then produced a small messenger substance. The messenger binds to the Adaptor protein sting, the second part of the switch. Sting Lost a signal chain at which the end is activation of genes containing a characteristic DNA sequence. If the sequence is coupled to any gene, it is connected to the switch. As a model gene, the Swiss elected the alkaline phosphatase: This enzyme can be easily detected in the blood and is therefore well suited to examine the function of the switch.

The synthetic switching element was then included in human cell lines. In the Petri dish, it worked smoothly, but the actual test was the implantation in a test animal that can move freely in the coffee. For this, the researchers used a culture of plastic, which was provided with a semi-passing membrane: individual proteins could pass the membrane, but whole cells are not. At the top of the faithful SAB an infrared diode to which a small coil was connected. The entire device was about two centimeters long: just small enough to enforce her mice under the skin.

Brain streams free enzymes

Thus, all components were together to start the actual attempt. Test persons set up electrodes that acknowledged a headhortry: at a single point, short over the left eyebrow, the brain streams were recorded. Then they focused on the computer game Minesweeper, or they considered landscapes and slowed the breathing to put into a meditative state. In both cases, the brain activity had unique patterns detected by a small control unit. When the threshold is exceeded, the control unit sent a signal to a generator generating a strong magnetic field.

On the field generator stood a tapig in which the mouse could move freely with the implant. The coil in the implant interacted with the magnetic field and supplied the infrared diode with electricity. The light then put the genetic switch started. The trial was successful: Within a day, rough amounts of the released enzyme were detectable in the blood of the mouse.

The little scientifically likes to be exciting: nothing was discovered, which gives basic research or medicine new impetus, and the technical progress was also limited. But the charm of the study hardly reduces that, because that lies in the vision of the researchers. They combined existing techniques to realize a novel concept — the mental control of genetic passes.

Is also a practical benefit conceivable? Many corporate substances serve as medications, and implanted cells could take over their production. Insulin, for example: implants, which are controlled by consciousness, could replace syringes and micropumps. There is also possible to skip conscious decisions and to couple the medication directly to the occurrence of the discharge. This is conceivable about epilepsy: brain patterns, which indicate an impending seizure, could directly clarify the release of drugs.

The researchers stress themselves that they have a distant future in mind. But if not everything exchanges, the relevant research areas — neuroprosthetics, synthetic biology and optogenetics — until then gross progress. The individual components of this experimental arrangement will soon be smaller and cheaper. At some point, they will also relieve them that first attempts will be conceivable with people. And then the parts must only be assembled to realize the vision of Fussenegger and his employees.

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