We are still a long way from understanding exactly how the human body works, but each year (indeed, each day) brings us a little bit closer to unlocking the secrets of our biology. Case in point, scientists recently discovered a gene that could boost IQ by as much as 6 points. That may not sound like too much as first (as 6 is kind of a small number), but this actually represents a significant increase in cognitive abilities. Ultimately, the KL-VS gene could account for around 3% of the IQ variation in the population.
This astounding new find was announced by researchers Dena Dubal, of the University of California at San Francisco, and Lennart Mucke, of the Gladstone Institute. The gene in question is a variant of KLOTHO (or "KL," for short). KL is a gene that is known to reduce the risk of stroke and, in so doing, increase life expectancy. The scientists were working with a particular variant, which is known as KL-VS, to determine if it also promoted longevity and helped people live a few extra years. In the study, Dubal and Mucke were particularly interested in whether or not the gene could help stave off cognitive decline. Unfortunately, they did not see any indication that the gene slowed cognitive decline; however, it did boost cognitive faculties (regardless of a person’s age or sex) by the equivalent of about six IQ points.
In order to conduct the test, Dubal and Mucke examined over 220 volunteers aged 52 to 85. Throughout the process, they assessed the subjects faculties of memory, attention, visuo-spatial awareness, and language. Based on these factors, the scientists constructed a "composite measure of cognition." After conducting the study, they noticed the increased abilities of individuals in relation to KL-VS. In order to confirm the data, the researchers increased the levels of KL-VS in mice to see what would happen. Similar results were seen in the mice, and they gradually became smarter.
This research is notable because, with a bit more study, we may be able to use this gene to help improve our memory and cognitive abilities. Moreover, we may be able to utilize this knowledge to assist with the treatment of individuals who are suffering from Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative conditions. “If we could boost the brain’s ability to function, we may be able to counter dementias," Dubal said in a press release. Obviously, this will have a marked impact on countries with ageing populations, and it seems that there are a number of countries with aging populations, as The Economist reports that number of dementia cases worldwide is estimated to double every 20 years and hit 115.4 million in 2050.
Dubal and Mucke assert that the increase in cognitive ability could be due to the way in which the KL-VS strengthens nerve connections in the brain via the klotho protein: "Signals cross synapses in chemical form. The most common messenger chemical, known as glutamate, is picked up by the receiving cell using molecules called NMDA receptors. It is known from previous work that glutamate stimulation of NMDA, or the lack of it, can strengthen or weaken synaptic connections. This is believed to be the basis of memory." However, more studies will be needed in order to confirm these results, especially as the 220 volunteers who were reported in the findings were not actually taking IQ tests. Moreover, all of the individuals tested were white, so most studies will be needed in order to get a diverse sample.
But despite the fact that the subjects were not actually given an IQ test, because of the kind of cognitive abilities that were being measured, the increase in function is notable and highly promising.