Researchers discover how to control genes with brainwaves (Wired UK)

3D receiver antenna wired via the receiver circuit

Marc Folcher – ETH Zurich

Bioengineers in Basel have found a way to let humans switch the
genes of mice on and off with the power of
their brainwaves. 

A team of researchers headed by Martin Fussenegger, Professor of
Biotechnology and Bioengineering at
the Department of Biosystems (D-BSSE) in Basel, have created an
optogenetics device, which enables brainwaves to regulate gene to
protein conversions. 

In a study published in Nature Communications, Fussenegger
commented that, “for the first time, we have been able to tap into
human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network and
regulate the expression of a gene depending on the type of

“Being able to control gene expression via the power of thoughts
is a dream that we’ve been chasing for over a decade.”

Explaining to that he and his team had been
interested in “controlling gene expression by external trigger
compounds or physiological cues” for
quite some time, Fussenegger noted that it was back in 2011 that
they had kickstarted the project. 

Nature Communications

“In 2011, we first designed an optogenetic device, which allowed
us to shine blue LED light on a mouse,” Fussenegger told “The light penetrates the mouse’s skin and programs
engineered cells to produce insulin and correct type one diabetes in the animals.” 

This experiment inspired the team to raise the bar in their
research. “We realised that our brain produces and uses electricity
to process information, and that information can be captured by an
EEG device,” explained Fussenneger. 

An EEG device is a headset that captures brainwave activities,
converting them wirelessly to control the LED, which is
subsequently rewired, according to Fussenegger, “to express the
gene.” Compared to back in 2011, this time around the optogenetic
device relies on infra-red LED light, which Fussenneger notes is
less harmful than the blue LED light. 

Asking their study participants to adopt two mental states
“focus and concentrate” and “relax and meditate”, Fussenegger
discovered that these two different states produced distinct
brainwave patterns that communicated to the LED.

While it is currently possible to control what Fussenegger
labels the “mechanical world” — robotic arms, helicopter drones and wheelchairs — through brainwaves,
this is the first time that brainwaves have exerted control over
the world on a molecular level. 

“You would control the mechanical world through an electronic
interface,” said Fussenegger. “We link to an optogenetic device and
it’s through light that we interface with the molecular and the
biochemical world.” 

Fussenegger hopes that this device, after rigorous clinical
trial, will be available within the next ten years. While still in
its infancy, this research could have positive implications for
disabled or “locked in patients”, who have no means of
communicating with the world, other than with their

“For those who cannot push a button or execute a therapeutic
intervention, this device could allow them to communicate with
their brainwaves,” explained Fussenegger to “They
could instruct an implant in their body to provide a particular
therapeutic compound.” 

The main development that Fussenegger and his team hope to
achieve is for the device to capture pathological brainwaves. This
means that the device would pre-empt epileptic seizures by
automatically recognising brainwave patterns, relay them to the
optogenetic implant, which would then produce therapeutic compounds
that correct the pain or prevent the seizures.

This, according to Fussenegger, is known as a “closed loop
control”, as the “brain’s deficiencies trigger a therapeutic

So far this experiment is innovative in its fusion of the fields
of cybernetics and optogenetics. In this
case, it is the act of controlling a gene through the “electricity”
and the “illumination” produced by the brain, that provides a
platform on which further research may be built.

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14 November 2014 | 3:21 pm – Source:


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