Just add mind control

Nature recently published an article on a brain wave controlled gene switch. I’ve just finished reading the article and I fail to understand  why the brain-computer interface (BCI) is a selling point.

Ignoring the quality of the subject matter, as quite frankly I’ve no idea what their talking about so I can’t judge (I found this article surprisingly difficult to read), there is no reason for the use of a BCI. Their justification appears to be these two sentences from the introduction:

“The advent of synthetic optogenetic devices that use power-controlled, light-adjustable therapeutic interventions18 will enable the merging of synthetic biology with cybernetics to allow brain waves to remotely control the transgene expression and cellular behaviour in a wireless manner.”

“Cybernetic control of synthetic gene networks in designer mammalian cells may pave the way for mind-genetic interfaces in future treatment strategies.”

Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5392 doi:10.1038/ncomms6392
Received 23 June 2014 Accepted 26 September 2014 Published 11 November 2014

Basically, mind control, why not? The authors could have at least feigned a justification, for example,  something along the lines of appropriating the bodies innate physiological control loops to see if they regulate the gene expression more appropriately than a user could do by hand.

What really bugs me though is the BCI setup, from what I can tell (and this is where the paper does a really poor job of explaining things), they ran two studies testing two different neurofeedback loops. The first loop, is a traditional biofeedback task whereby the subject regulates their meditative state, as inferred from a NeuroSky unit, in order to trigger a switch ON or OFF.  The second loop, and this is where it gets tricky is regulated by the subject engaging in different tasks: either playing a game or relaxing which are used to trigger a switch  ON or OFF.

“For all mind-control experiments, the subjects sat in a comfortable chair in front of an LCD computer screen wearing the BCI headset and keeping the eyes open at all times. The LCD screen was controlled by a Laptop computer connected to the headset through a bluetooth serial connection. The subjects were verbally instructed to generate three different mental states: biofeedback, concentration and meditation. To generate the biofeedback mental state, the subject was asked to watch the meditation-meter values displayed on a screen and self-train to keep the meditation-meter values above and below a desired threshold. To reach the mental state of concentration, the subject was playing the computer game minesweeper, and for meditation, the subjects were asked to breathe deeply while looking at a landscape still picture on the LCD screen. Unlike for the biofeedback, the subjects did not train to produce mental states of concentration and meditation, as they did not obtain real-time feedback on the screen about their mental states.”

Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5392 doi:10.1038/ncomms6392
Received 23 June 2014 Accepted 26 September 2014 Published 11 November 2014

The article does a terrible job of explaining this second loop, so please forgive me if I’m misreading this but if I’m right, what the heck?!  What was the point of any of this? First off, their using NeuroSky’s propriety algorithms, so the whole idea of testing the potential of self-regulating gene-expression through physiological control loops is out because no one except NeuroSky knows what signal is being used to regulate the switch.

This is a common issue in HCI when researchers submit psychophysiological studies that use propriety measures. If you don’t know what a signal represents any findings you have are meaningless. Secondly, why these control loops, how would either of these loops work better than a person with a physical button to turn ON or OFF, a radio dial, voice control, a Dance Dance Revolution controller! I can understand using a traditional biofeedback loop, but the second one is ridiculous.

If I’m understanding the article correctly there probably is a good case for using physiological control in this area of research, however the authors have not provided any real justification for it here, nor justified why they used the control loops they did. It feels rather much a case of just adding a BCI because its trendy which at this point, having seen many papers like this, is rather sad.

Anyways, has anyone else read this article? Do you agree, disagree, have other thoughts? Then please drop a comment below.

 

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