Thursday, July 02, 2020

Creating Enhanced Brains?

Here's an article about a neuroscience experiment involving "ARHGAP11B, a gene found only in humans," which "is known for its role in expanding neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions":

Brain Gene

When the gene was inserted into fetal marmosets (very small monkeys), the neocortices of their brains grew larger and developed more folds, an important feature "because those folds increase the surface area available for brain cells, or neurons, without making the brain too big for the skull." The experiment suggests that this gene was vital in the process of our primate ancestors becoming human. Also, study of the gene may contribute to understanding of and treatment for brain disorders.

One aspect of this discovery that intrigues me is the implication that high intelligence doesn't necessarily require a huge brain. The range of organisms that can display near-human intelligence (hypothetically, on extraterrestrial planets, for example) might be broader than we've assumed. The extraordinary brilliance of such birds as parrots, although presumably unrelated to this gene, confirms that small-brained creatures can be smarter than we might expect.

What about using this kind of genetic manipulation to increase human intelligence? Not surprisingly, a scientist quoted at the end of the article strongly warns against using the technique to "improve" human brains. The treatment given to Charlie in FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON comes to mind. What about creating enhanced animals? As shown in science fiction from H. G. Wells's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU to Cordwainer Smith's Underpeople stories and beyond, such a procedure, if successful, could raise a host of problems, not least what rights sapient animals should have. Robert Heinlein addresses that question in his novella "Jerry Was a Man" (1947), about an uplifted chimp in a society that essentially uses his kind as slaves.

And what about the miniature brains grown in vitro, which I've mentioned here before?


Suppose they were injected with the neocortex-expansion gene? The idea of an artificially grown brain with intelligence but not consciousness raises the intriguing though rather creepy SF prospect of organic computers. Of course, as the article above explains, these clusters of cells are not and, in the present state of research, never could become actual brains. Still, they would make a cool story premise.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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