In a study, Johns Hopkins researchers and colleagues utilized the gene of a catfish to enable a rat brain to sense electromagnetic fields.
A wide variety of animals, such as newts, lobster, bees and birds are capable of sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, but humans are not. That exclusion has been the topic of debate for some time. A newly discovered gene that belongs to a glass catfish (Kryptopterus bicirrhis) seems to be able to respond to electromagnetic fields. Researchers believe the gene can be utilized to non-invasively trigger heart and brain cells.
That technique opens possibilities of treating epilepsy, developing wireless biological pacemakers or building brain machine interfaces that utilize electromagnetic signals to talk with human cells.
In previous studies, researchers were able to identify genes related to electromagnetic sensing in bacteria and pigeons. A large number of those genes work in conjunction to create molecular complexes that can sense electromagnetic fields. However, this newly discovered gene, which was first discovered in a glass catfish, is unlike other genes in that it works solo and is not linked to the development of such complexes.
The research team initially discovered the gene by putting varying pieces of DNA from a glass catfish into frog eggs and determining which eggs would respond to the electromagnetic field. Just one gene was identified with that effect, so the researchers called it electromagnetic perceptive gene or EPG.
While the researchers are yet to determine exactly how EPG senses magnetic fields, they do know the effect. When protein secures to the cell’s surface, it causes a gush of calcium into that cell. For a large number of cell types, including heart cells and neurons, that flood of calcium triggers the cell to beat or fire. The research team delivered EPG in various groups of brain cells and in turn was capable of wirelessly activating those specific neurons with a magnetic field.
The researchers hope one day to utilize the technique to activate specific parts of the human brain to treat illnesses associated to the misfiring of neurons, such as depression and epilepsy. Physicians currently utilize invasive methods like deep brain stimulation to attempt and ease such conditions. With EPG, the researchers may alternatively deliver the gene through stem cell transplants or gene therapy.
The work will be presented at the 8th International IEEE EMBS Conference On Neural Engineering in Shanghai.