Gene hacking to increase human intelligence?

What if there were a way to change humans and make them a whole lot smarter? I’m not talking about convincing them to give up playing Halo 3 for 16 hours straight, or to read James Joyce instead of James Patterson novels. I’m talking about actually tinkering genetically with the human brain, in an attempt to upgrade its capabilities and dramatically improve intellectual performance.

Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit of deja vu as you read this, since a few years back, I did write a blog post about the quest to find a pharmaceutical way of enhancing our brainpower. It’s alluring to think that someday a “genius in a capsule” could give us the same startling results that Cliff Robertson’s character in the 1968 film Charly got from a radical brain operation. And in fact, since at least the mid-2000s, early adopters have been jumping the gun on this concept, experimenting on their own (and at their own risk) with drugs developed to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. But there’s scant evidence that such “brain doping,” as it’s known in the human performance-enhancing underground, has any more benefit than those magnetic bracelets that chronic pain sufferers sometimes resort to in desperation. In fact, Dr. Ruben Buehler, who organized a recent panel discussion on brain doping at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, warned that it might actually have the opposite of the intended effect:

That person could be impaired in their ability to think creatively. It might enhance one domain of cognition, at the expense of other domains of thinking.

Another problem with trying to jailbreak your frontal lobes with a drug is that doping is imprecise — and inefficient. The active chemical has plenty of opportunities to be diluted or altered before it reaches the target, and because you’re not delivering it exclusively to the portion of gray matter that you’re trying to buff up, it may have less desirable effects on other parts of the brain.

How close are scientists to genetically enhancing human intelligence?

Implanting some sort of device in the brain to boost performance is another idea that’s been around for a long time. Back in the 1950s, English psychiatrist and futurist Ross Ashby dreamed up the idea of an electronic intelligence amplifier that could be surgically inserted in the brain. In 1962, Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, wrote this paper about the possibilities of augmenting our intellectual abilities with technology.

Those visionaries may well have been on to something. Implants that stimulate certain areas of the brain (or help override signals from other areas) have been used in recent years to treat conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s, in addition to clinical depression. Recent technological advances, such as nanotech coatings for these tiny devices that will enable them to last longer, promise to push the envelope even further. The Pentagon is pretty excited about the future prospect of rewiring soldiers’ and fighter pilots’ brains to boost performance, as this Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) document describes.

But upgrading your wetware with add-on hardware has some potential downsides, too. For one thing, you’ve got to allow a surgeon to drill a small hole in your skull, and maybe it’s just me, but I would find that a bit off-putting.

Scientists are beginning to understand how brain geography affects intelligence.

Besides, recent research suggests that genetic manipulation might be an easier, more potent way to boost brainpower. Researchers in Spain and at Emory University in the U.S. have made some startling discoveries about RGS14, a gene in mice and humans that seems to regulate the mysterious “CA2” portion of the brain’s hippocampus region. While the hippocampus is known to be involved in the consolidating new learning and forming new memories, exactly how CA2 contributes to those processes remains murky. In the Emory study, published in September 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers deleted RGS14 using gene-targeting technology. They discovered that mice without RGS14 were able to remember objects they’d explored and navigate mazes better than regular mice, which suggests that the gene — again, for reasons not yet understood — inhibits some forms of learning and memory. (Researchers jokingly have taken to calling it the “Homer Simpson gene.”)

As the ever-insightful Annalee Newitz of speculates in this post, it could be that blocking RGS-14 is the key to unleashing eidetic visual memory, the hypothetical ability to recall details as if you had taken a picture of them with a camera.  (It should be mentioned that many memory experts are skeptical that eidetic memory exists, or that it is even possible, as this article explains.)

But making ourselves smarter may be much trickier than simply disabling a single dimwit gene, because human intelligence seems to be a pretty complicated thing. Science has been probing its nature since at least as far back as the late 19th century, and we still lack a general agreement about which discrete abilities it includes, how they are integrated, and what factors influence its components. A 1996 American Psychological Association task force concluded that we still didn’t have reliable standards for measuring intelligence or for comparing the intelligenece of two individuals, especially those from different cultures. A 2007 study by Washington University School of Medicine researchers, described in this article, identified another gene, CHRM2, as possibly influencing other abilities that show up in standard IQ tests. But as the study’s lead author, assistant professor of psychiatry Danielle Dick, was careful to add, there may be 100 or more different genes that combine to affect how smart we are.

I think all of the genes involved probably have small, cumulative effects on increasing or decreasing I.Q., and I expect overall intelligence is a function of the accumulation of all of these genetic variants, not to mention environmental influences ranging from socio-economic status to the value that’s placed on learning when children are growing up.

My concern would be that if you recalibrate that genetic interaction wrongly, you might get some disastrous unintended consequences. But assuming we figure out that complex relationship, and genetic enhancement of the human brain eventually turns out to be possible, another question remains: Should we do it? Remember, the movie Charly had a pretty downbeat ending. Beyond that, I suspect that one of the most powerful attributes of Homo sapiens is our intellectual resilience and versatility, our ability not just to compensate for our individual weaknesses but to adapt in such ingenious ways that we end up ahead. For example, as this article from ArtLyst explains, scientists at Middlesex University in the U.K. have advanced the theory that Pablo Picasso, the giant of 20th-century modernist painting, turned to Cubism at least in part because he had dyslexia, a learning disability that alters how the brain processes visual symbols. And this article from Mental Floss reminds us that Alfred Mosher Butts’ own deficiencies at memorizing spelling words didn’t prevent him from inventing — you guessed it — Scrabble.

So what do you think about attempting to increase human intelligence through gene hacking?

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