Can genetic engineering increase intelligence?

health : Mice can be made more genetically engineered. People (soon) too

Difficult times lie ahead for the inventors of mousetraps. And so many lazy house cats have to fear that the pranks of the cunning mouse from "Tom and Jerry" could soon become a cruel reality. Scientists from Princeton University have succeeded in significantly increasing the intelligence of mice. The decline in memory in old age is related in both mice and humans to the loss of the so-called NMDA receptor on nerve cells in the brain. By changing the genetic make-up, the American genetic engineers have now created a strain of mice in which the number of "youthful" NMDA receptors is many times higher than that of normal mice.

The result is astonishing: The genetically tuned rodent family performed significantly better in all disciplines of a mouse intelligence test than their conspecifics, who only had their God-given mouse brain at their disposal. Of course, none of the super mickeys has been observed secretly playing chess. So what is special when a few test rodents remember a ball or a cube for a few days longer and escape a basin with cloudy water more quickly? The actual sensation is wisely not expressed by the authors of the report, although for experts it is written in large letters between the lines: The results can in principle be transferred to humans. From all that we know so far about the NMDA receptor, it also plays a crucial role in the ability to learn and memory in higher primates and humans. Drugs that block the receptor lead to massive memory disorders and schizophrenia-like symptoms in humans and mice.

Of course, our central organ is much more complex. But the mouse experiment proves that by manipulating a single receptor without recognizable side effects, a multitude of cognitive functions can be increased, which are also located in far apart brain regions. The realization that in the brain of mammals, probably the most complicated creation of nature, simple adjusting screws are apparently hidden even for highly complex abilities, suddenly makes the increase in the performance of the thinking organ through targeted drugs or gene therapy interventions within reach.

But who should benefit from such mental enlightenment? There is no doubt that patients with organic brain diseases could benefit from the new therapies. And even the treatment of age-related memory disorders will probably not seriously contradict our social consensus, which regards "old age" as a disease and not as a natural process. But what about the powder before the exam, the pill for pilots or even the organized brain doping of an intellectual elite, however selected?

The plan to increase the efficiency of the human brain is as old as genetic engineering itself. The seemingly harmless experiment with the clever mice shows how far Pandora's box is already open. This is where the expertise of the mouse researchers ends, and the questioning gaze is directed towards the moral and ethical leadership of our country. However, the latter is persistently silent when it comes to the correct handling of the gifts of genetic engineering. And when she does speak, as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently did in his controversial theses on "human discipline", it becomes really clear how much the natural sciences are left in the lurch by the humanities.

Sloterdijk's demand for a "code of anthropotechnics", which genetic engineers and philosophers should develop together in order to then breed an intelligent elite optimized with genetic engineering means on the basis of "explicit characteristics planning", really does not provide bio-researchers with any useful ethical guideline . On the contrary: The post-metaphysical philosophy, disappointed by humanism, reaches out to genetic engineering, of all things, in order to align its meaningless worldview to supposedly objective, because scientific, coordinates. However, what is needed is not the genetic revision of humanity, but the humanistic processing of genetic engineering.

The author is the director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Photo: Jacqueline Peyer

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