Big Brain

Scientist Who Gene-Hacked Babies “Likely” Boosted Their Brainpower

The first two humans with genetically boosted cognition and memory may already be born.

2. 21. 19 by Dan Robitzski
Raman Oza/Pete Linforth/Dilan Ranjith/Tag Hartman-Simkins
Image by Raman Oza/Pete Linforth/Dilan Ranjith/Tag Hartman-Simkins

Galaxy Brain

When infamous Chinese scientist He Jiankui edited the genes of human twin babies last year, he was reportedly trying to make them immune to HIV. But researchers familiar with the genetic changes he made are now saying that the specific manipulation he performed may have broader consequences.

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 correlate 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.

Feigned Ignorance

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 Tech Review 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 Tech. “The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”


Side Effects Unknown

Silva 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,” Silva told MIT Tech. “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. We are not ready for it yet.”

READ MORE: The CRISPR twins had their brains altered [MIT Technology Review]

More on He Jiankui: Next Gene-Edited Baby Due in Six Months, Scientist Says


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