Thought-controlled implant creates proteins on demand

The prototype implant, with its near-infrared LED

Wouldn't it be great if there were implants that detected the brainwaves associated with conditions such as chronic headaches or epilepsy, and then responded by triggering genes in the patient's body to produce a protein that treated the condition? Well, scientists at the ETH Zurich research institute are on their way to making it happen. They've developed an implant that causes genetically-modified cells to express a specific protein, and the device is indeed activated by brain waves.

The implant was created by a team led by Prof. Martin Fussenegger, and it incorporates an LED that emits near-infrared light, along with a chamber that contains the cells. When the light comes on, it causes the cells to express a protein known as SEAP – it was chosen because it's very easy to detect.

The implant was tested in human cell cultures, and in mice. It was activated by human volunteers who wore an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset, that monitored the electrical activity in their brain. Those readings were transmitted by Bluetooth to a controller, which in turn activated a field generator located near the implant. The resulting electromagnetic field provided the implant with an induction current, powering its LED.

In both the cultures and the mice, the SEAP diffused from the chamber and into the surrounding tissue – in the mice, it entered and circulated through their bloodstream.

The volunteers were divided into three groups, each of which attempted to activate the device while in a different state of mind. One group, who were concentrating on playing Minecraft while wearing the headset, produced average amounts of SEAP in the mice. Another group, who relaxed their minds via meditation, produced much higher levels.

The third group utilized a bio-feedback approach. They were able to see the implant, and made a conscious effort to illuminate its LED. This resulted in varying amounts of SEAP, depending on the test subject.

"Controlling genes in this way is completely new and is unique in its simplicity," said Fussenegger. He was first inspired to create the technology by a game called Mindflex, in which EEG-wearing players use their thoughts to guide a fan-blown ball through an obstacle course.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: ETH Zurich

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