|Vol. 5, No. 4, 1999 Page 5|
Our genes influence every-thing from our IQs to how sociable or impulsive we are. In addition, research shows that genes play a strong role in criminality, substance abuse, and antisocial or risk-taking behavior. Now, two remarkable research findings have e scientists asking: what if we could change the genes involved in behavior and thinking?
In one study, Princeton researcher Joe Tsien and colleagues created a new strain of mice, nicknamed “Doogie” mice (after the young genius in the TV show, “Doogie Howser, M.D.”), by adding extra copies of a gene associated with memory and learning. Althoug gh many genes influence intelligence, altering a single gene in the Doogie mice made them learn faster, remember lessons better, and show more interest in new toys.
“Our results suggest,” the researchers say, “that genetic enhancement of mental and cognitive attributes such as intelligence and memory in mammals is feasible.”
Says Lee M. Silver, a Princeton professor who analyzes the social effects of genetic engineering, Tsien et al.s’ study “demolishes the argument of those who claim that things like memory, learning, and intelligence are so complicate ed that scientists will never be able to figure out ways to enhance those traits.”
While Tsien and colleagues are creating smarter-than-average mice, researchers at Emory University are developing a friendlier-than-usual mouse. Larry Young and colleagues transplanted a single gene, the vasopressin receptor gene, from prairie voles-creat tures known for their nurturing and sociable personalities-into mice, which normally are far less sociable. The hormone vasopressin is involved in aggression (see related article, Crime Times, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 1, Page 5), social and sexual behavior, communication, and memory.
When the researchers inserted vole vasopressin receptor genes into mice, Young says, the male mice spent much more time grooming, smelling, and “generally being nice” to the female mice. Young says, “These transgenic mice really surprised us. Not only did d they show the prairie vole pattern of vasopressin receptors, but these mice responded to vasopressin just like prairie voles.” Notes study coauthor Thomas Insel, “What is really intriguing about this is that a change in the promot ter sequence of a single gene can lead to a new pattern of receptor expression in the brain and then result in this profound difference in something as complex as social behavior.”
Although Young and Tsien have experimented only on animals, both believe their findings eventually may be applicable to humans as well, as a therapy for learning and memory disorders, as well as attachment disorders such as autism.
“Social behavior transformed with one new gene,” Emory University Health Sciences Center release, August 18, 1999.
“Smart genes?” Michael D. Lemonick, Time, September 13, 1999.
"Gene tinkering makes memorable mice,” J. Travis, Science News, Vol. 156, September 4, 1999, p. 149.