A fish that can sense the Earth’s magnetic field while it swims could help scientists understand how the human brain works and eventually unlock strategies to help control movement impairments in patients with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders, a study reports.
The study, “Wireless control of cellular function by activation of a novel protein responsive to electromagnetic fields,” was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The freshwater glass catfish, also known as Kryptopterus bicirrhis, is capable of sensing and responding to the Earth’s electromagnetic fields.
Michigan State University (MSU) researchers were able to identify this “navigational gene,” called the electromagnetic-perceptive gene, or EPG. The protein produced by the EPG senses both static and alternating magnetic waves, allowing the fish to swim away in response to magnetic fields.
The team injected a virus containing the EPG into motor neurons located in one of the main regions of the brain involved in motor function, called the right primary motor cortex, of 10 adult rats. Five control rats were injected with a virus that had a fluorescent protein called GFP instead of the EPG.
Remote wireless magnetic stimulation of EPG-expressing rats induced large muscle responses compared with control rats.
“We’ve found a noninvasive way to activate this gene once injected in the brain cells of mice and regulate movement in their limbs,” Galit Pelled, PhD, a medical bioengineering professor at MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering and the study’s lead author, said in a press release.
These findings suggest that the same strategy “could work similarly in humans,” he said.
In the future, a Parkinson’s disease patient with tremors could receive an injection of the EPG gene in a specified brain region. A magnet that emits electromagnetic waves could then activate the gene to help control, or ideally stop, the tremors.
“Technology is getting better and better every year, so this magnet could be built into anything,” Pelled said.
Deep brain stimulation, an established treatment for advanced Parkinson’s patients, is a surgical procedure that involves implanting a neurostimulator in the brain, which sends electrical impulses to specific brain regions.
However, this technique is highly invasive involving drilling a hole in the skull for electrode implantation. This process can damage neurons and other cells and even increase the levels of inflammatory factors.
Engineering stem cells to express the EPG gene and introducing them into the brain of Parkinson’s patients is the goal of Assaf Gilad, PhD, the study’s co-author and a professor of biomedical engineering and radiology.
“Stem cells are very good carriers of genes so if someone has Parkinson’s, we can introduce these stem cells into the brain as a therapy,” he said. “This type of treatment could not only help the brain, but could work in other parts of the body too, like the heart, and help those with heart issues.”
Researchers are now trying to understand the underlying mechanisms that allow the EPG gene to respond to magnetic waves.
“The mechanism of the gene is still unknown,” Gilad said. “But once we understand how it really works, it could open the door to even more possibilities.”