When Jiankui He, a Chinese scientist, genetically edited twin babies last year, he might have inadvertently enhanced their cognition.
Better Brain Function
To make the babies immune to HIV/AIDS, He used CRISPR to introduce an alteration to the gene called CCR5, which is associated with the virus. However, scientists fear that the procedure might have given the children an unfair advantage.
"The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains," stated Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist from the University of California, Los Angeles, in a conversation with MIT Technology Review. "The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins."
Silva is involved in a study that discovered the role of CCR5 to memory and synaptic connections. They found that the deletion of the gene resulted in smarter mice. In humans, they believe that the alteration could improve brain recovery of stroke patients. It could also be linked to better performance in school.
The Dawn Of Designer Babies?
The scientists involved in the study of the CCR5 gene on cognition said that He did not contact them. The Chinese scientist, it was revealed last year, reached out to experts to ask for scientific advice during his experiment.
However, MIT Technology Review said that He "was certainly aware" of the link between CCR5 and better cognition. Silva and Miou Zhou, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, have shown in a 2016 study that removing the gene significantly improved the memory of mice.
Silva added that because of his research, he interacts with several people who might be interested in designer babies.
"I suddenly realized — Oh, holy s***, they are really serious about this b*******," he recalled his reaction when He revealed his experiment in November. "My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness."
He also admitted to it himself. At a conference in Hong Kong, the Chinese scientist stated that he "saw" the paper linking the gene to cognition but argued that it needs independent verification. He also added that he does not support gene modification for enhancement.
The experiment by the Chinese scientist was met with intense criticism from the scientific community when it was revealed last year. As a response, the World Health Organization announced that it will create a panel to discuss the scientific, ethical, social, and legal ramifications of gene editing and develop global standards to govern gene editing in humans.