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Medical Physician | Founder & CEO of PDP Health

Altered Intelligence

If you could edit the genes of an embryo to make the future child more intelligent, would you do it? That question, long in the realm of hypothetical may become more central to the bioethical conversation, thanks to breakthroughs in the development and accuracy of CRISPR CAS9 gene editing.

CRISPR has been edging into popular discussion, thanks in part to a great feature on the hit science podcast Radiolab. And in a Scientific American guest post, Jim Kozubek dove into some of the advancements being made in our understanding of intelligence— and how to “improve” it. It’s a fantastic read, but there are a few things you should keep in mind. First is the very definition of “intelligent”. We should be wary of equating it with something like “smartness”. The two are not necessarily exclusive to one another; heightened intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically ace every single exam. Instead, consider intelligence a metric for capacity of memory.

Another point Kozubek stresses is the fact that no one gene is “superior to another”. Instead, each gene comes with a particular trade off. Take, for instance, his explanation of the COMT gene:

“The COMT gene encodes for the catechol-O-methyltransferase enzyme involved in degradation of dopamine in the prefrontal and temporal cortex. People with two copies of a mutation have a fourfold increase in COMT activity, while if you have less you may have better concentration, but also be more jittery.”

And, because each person is unique, there isn’t one “right” way to maximize intelligence.
Lastly, there are the ethical implications of normalizing gene editing of this nature. On one hand, there are ethicists and researchers who essentially argue “why wouldn’t you want to improve the intellectual capacity of all people?” On the other are warnings that it could cement hard class divisions in the instance that it is only made available to certain reaches of society.