WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Genetic enhancement has a variety of unknown impacts on human biology and cognition, and we are no where near to understanding them.
When now infamous Chinese scientists He Jiankui edited the genes of human twin babies last year, he was reportedly trying to make them immune to HIV as well as a variety of other diseases – something that was demonstrated possible a while ago when researchers elsewhere used the same gene editing tools to make E. Coli bacteria, which are, let’s face it a completely different kettle of fish compared to humans, immune to every known pathogen on Earth. But researchers familiar with the genetic changes he made are now saying that the specific manipulation he performed may have broader consequences, and affected the twin’s intelligence. Something that is theoretically possible after scientists last year discovered more than 500 genes linked to human intelligence.
The CCR5 gene is linked to HIV susceptibility, but research published Thursday in the journal Cell shows that it also enhances cognition in mouse studies. The gene can also facilitate a human’s recovery after a stroke and may also have a correlations with academic success, according to MIT Technology Review – meaning that the first two enhanced humans with genetically boosted cognition and memory may already be born.
While there’s no direct evidence that He intended to do anything to twin babies Lulu and Nana’s brain, though given his lofty goals for a future without HIV, it seems plausible that he would have also celebrated figuring out how to boost human intelligence. All the same, evidence gathered by MIT suggests that He likely knew about the role CCR5 plays in the brain.
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” Alcino Silva, a University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist who worked on the new research, told MIT. “The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
Silva, like everyone else, argues that He should not have conducted his research because there’s no way to predict what effect it will have on Lulu and Nana’s lives.
“Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population? I would not be a scientist if I said no,” said Silva. “The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes. But mice are not people. We simply don’t know what the consequences will be in mucking around, and we aren’t ready for it yet.”