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Brain Plague: Can microbes boost our brains?

November 14, 2011

This week we play with ideas from Brain Plague, whose microbial “characters” tumble through the spinal fluid looking something like these colored brainbow cells invented by Harvard scientists. Many fans find Brain Plague my most enjoyable read; one wrote, “I had to read it four times before I could move to another book.” It helps that (spoiler alert) most of the characters, human and microbial, get exactly the fates they deserve.

How many genes does it take to make a brain? A search on “brain” in the US government (thank you, taxpayers!) human gene database OMIM, Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (sic) yields well over six thousand hits. Defects in about a quarter of all human genes can harm the brain; that means, every fourth gene is a brain gene. Remember that each of us is born with a few gene defects even our parents don’t have; so, all things considered, perhaps it’s not surprising how badly Republicans do in their endless debates. Your transversions are bound to show up some time.

Actually, brain genes are no laughing matter. Consider just one, the FOXG1 gene. Take a look at all the ghastly records of what happens when you’re born with a variant of this gene. Especially one missing the groucho-binding domain (not a joke). Imagine being a parent raising a baby through two months–then watching the slow deterioration, followed by years in an institution, like maybe one of those investigated by the New York Times. Having a FOXG1 defect–or giving birth to such a child–is one of those events for which the phrase “fate worse than death” was invented.

Suppose a doctor told you, we might cure your FOXG1 child by infection with some experimental microbes.  Would you do it?

Or suppose you had a less catastrophic defect, maybe color blindness; and you’re an artist. You could take these microbes that could make you the next Picasso. Would you?

Even if they’re as dangerous as HIV?

  1. alex tolley permalink
    November 14, 2011 10:08 pm

    Curing a FOXG1 gene defect is a no-brainer (sorry, couldn’t resist). While curing genetic defects is interesting, I suspect that the real action is going to be tailoring therapeutics for cognitive enhancement. That might take several routes, including using viruses.

    The value of cognitive enhancement over a lifetime is large, suggesting that the cost of such treatments could be high, and have high demand. Ultimately cognitive enhancement is going to result in IQ inflation for jobs, but the end result is a smarter (hopefully) population.

    • November 15, 2011 2:58 pm

      Maybe that’s happening already–the Flynn effect says that IQ measurements rose over the past century, possibly due to environmental improvement and greater cognitive stimulation.

      There have been science fiction stories about what happens when everyone gets more intelligent. What do you think happens?
      I suspect people raise their expectations and compete on a higher level.

      • November 17, 2011 7:05 pm

        Is that nature or nurture? IQ tests aren’t context neutral despite all our attempts, and I have trouble believing that education in general wouldn’t favor higher IQs. The mechanism doesn’t even have to be conscious. Techniques that favor higher IQs could be selected without people even realizing how they work.

        The more interesting thing is that researchers are showing that there’s more than one type of intelligence. In the future, there will be a growth of different educational techniques (mostly because it’s happening now). The problem children are going to be those who are multiply-gifted or average in everything, because they will be shoe-horned into programs where they don’t entirely fit. People can be multiply intelligent, after all.

  2. Petter permalink
    November 15, 2011 5:34 am

    I agree with Alex. The main ethical problem imo is that gene-therapy quite possibly has to be performed early on (ie neonatal treatment) for it to have the optimal effect. Who has the right to decide what is best for the newborn in that situation? What doctor would dare give recommendations for conditions less serious than FOXG1 mutations, given the risk of unknown side-effects?

  3. November 15, 2011 2:38 pm

    ‘Dangerous as HIV’ in what way? Fatal in 5 years? Highly contagious? If non-color blind people consume the microbes is the danger still there or is it only dangerous to those whose bodies/cells/genes are modified?
    If I were really devoted to my art, and there was a substance I could use/take that could make my work famous (before or after death?) would I do it? The question of ‘fixing’ something wrong doesn’t even need to be there. A successful artist who happens to be colorblind, musician who can’t hear certain sounds, physicist who can’t remember greek symbols, do they need modification?
    A similar survey comes out every few years around sports doping. If you could take an undetectable substance that would let you (win the Gold Medal) but you would be dead in five years, would you take it? An unbelievable 80%+ of athletes respond ‘Yes’.
    So, my guess is that if/when these substances start becoming available (artist doping, musician doping, scientist doping), no matter what dangers there are they will be used.

    • November 15, 2011 3:01 pm

      Well, that sounds about right. Even in college, I see that student athletes put up with serious injuries for their sport, even concussions.

      You would fit right into Brain Plague. 😉

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