The work of Folcher and colleagues is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption of an experiment—it probably goes without saying that mind-controlled gene expression isn’t a particularly straightforward concept.
The basic setup is as follows. In the first leg of the experiment, a participant in the study—to clarify, a human participant—straps on an electrode headset and plops down in front of a computer. As she plays a game or gazes at a landscape (more on that later), a Bluetooth transmitter sends processed brain signals to a controller, which turns an electromagnetic field on and off in proportion to her level of relaxation. Bonkers, right? This is when the second participant—to clarify, a rodent participant—enters the arena.
This is also when the experiment starts to get really nuts. As the experimenters’ hapless mouse wanders through the electromagnetic field, a wirelessly powered implant in the mouse’s skin starts to emit near-infrared light, which activates a light-sensitive population of implanted cells designed by the experimenters. Upon activation, a cascade of chemical reactions results in the production of a protein called secreted alkaline phosphatase (SEAP).
You meditate; mouse gets more protein.
Or in the words of the authors, “An electroencephalography (EEG)-based brain–computer interface (BCI) processing mental state-specific brain waves programs an inductively linked wireless-powered optogenetic implant containing designer cells engineered for near-infrared (NIR) light-adjustable expression of the human glycoprotein SEAP (secreted alkaline phosphatase).” Boom.
Let’s get back to the computer game and the landscape.
“To reach the mental state of concentration,” wrote the authors, “the subject was playing the computer game minesweeper [sic], and for meditation, the subjects were asked to breathe deeply while looking at a landscape still picture on the LCD screen.” (So many questions. Are computers still shipped with Minesweeper, or is a contemporary neuroengineering lab still using Windows XP? What’s the definition of meditation? What kind of landscape? Is it the Windows XP background?)
It’s the headset‘s proprietary algorithms that allow for the quantification of a meditation index—a metric necessarily limited by its own primitiveness. Likewise, the cells producing the protein weren’t mouse cells at all, but specially designed human cells stuffed into the mouse’s implant. The mouse may as well have been a petri dish. (They did that experiment, too.) All told, the work is flashy and memorable, but it amounts to a series of baby steps—more cute than sexy.
But a system that couples electrical signals with genetic manipulation—an electrogenetic device—could indeed offer a powerful complement to modern medicine. Folcher and colleagues write, “When coupled to brain activities, such electrogenetic devices provide mind-genetic interfaces that add a new dimension to state-of-the-art electronic-mechanical implants, such as heart and brain pacemakers, cochlear hearing aids, eye prostheses, insulin-releasing micropumps and bionic extremities.”
Maybe. A Rube Goldberg machine accomplishes a simple task in the least efficient manner. Mind-control might not be the most efficient solution here. Leveraging the brain’s rich electrical data, however, could certainly prove useful for treating conditions like epilepsy. If the researchers are on to anything, it’s the idea of injecting a bit more creativity into the manipulation of this data.
The Nature Communications paper is the latest in a long line of sexy neuroengineering experiments. Last year, two sets of researchers at Duke and Harvard Medical School reported the use of “brain-to-brain interfaces” to share data between two brains. In one paper, a rat’s performance on a behavioral task biased another rat’s choices in a similar setting. In the other, a human subject’s recognition of a strobe light caused a rat’s tail to twitch.
More recently, a group out of Washington University reported “the first brain-to-brain interface in humans,” with which motor imagery from one computer gamer was translated to motor output—clicking a touchpad—in another. Baby steps.
Some of the buzzwords are more immediately applicable, though. Robotics! Data! 3D printing! That’s just modern prosthetic science. (See the video below.) The difference is in the degree of translation to the real world.
A mentor once told me that scientists will clone humans because they can, not because they need to. I’ll be the first one to wax nerdy about the newest brain-to-brain interface or mind-controlled transgene manipulator. It’s all intricate, bleeding edge science. But sometimes I’m left wondering whether a study offers an elegant solution to a nonexistent problem.
Either way, there’s a case to be made for serendipity here. One of the most widely prescribed anticoagulants started its pharmaceutical journey as a rat poison. A certain little blue pill was supposed to treat hypertension until someone discovered its, well, other effect. Somewhere in Folcher and colleagues’ wild electrogenetic system, we might have the building blocks of a cure for any number of neurological diseases. We might also end up with the next Viagra. I’m not sure if that’s sexy or not.
Thanks to Ignacio Pérez Pozuelo for pointing me to this paper.