Is there a gene for stupid?

February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

Maybe. Maybe not.

An article in the February 15 edition of Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reported that pharmacologist John Hepler and associates recently discovered a gene in the brains of mice that codes for a signaling protein that “significantly boosted brainpower with seemingly no negative consequences.” Jabr writes:

People have this gene, too, and it is active in the same brain area. In other words, we may have a gene in our heads that is actively making us dumber.

Hepler et al were studying the CA2 section of the hippocampus when they discovered that neurons in that area appeared to be blocked from participating in learning and memory processes when they were saturated with signaling protein RGS14.

When they bred mice who lacked the gene for RGS14 the CA2 neurons were no longer blocked and the mice exhibited some interesting differences in learning and behavior. Scientific American reports that:

The genetic tweak affected more than physiology—it changed how the mice performed on memory tests, too. The experimenters presented two identical objects to knock­out mice, which lacked the RGS14 gene, and to normal mice. Four hours and again 24 hours later, the researchers switched one of the objects with a new object. The knockout mice spent far more time exploring the new object than the normal mice did, indicating that the altered rodents had a better memory for distinguishing familiar and strange objects. Knockout mice also learned to navigate a water maze and locate a submerged platform faster than normal mice did. The scientists observed no detriments from removing the RGS14 gene.

“Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” asks Serena Dudek, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “We don’t know. But if the gene is conserved by natural selection, there must be some reason. Intuitively, it seems there should be a downside to having this gene knocked out, but we haven’t found it so far. It may be that these mice are hallucinating, and you just can’t tell.”

And this is where I get frustrated that I don’t have unlimited access to journal articles (or an unlimited budget to buy it with) because based on what they’re saying here it sounds to me that while the gene may have something to do with spatial learning, it might also have evolved as a safety mechanism controlling neophobia – not stupidity.

I suppose that one might be able to test this by looking at the action of CA2 in young animals during different stages of development when neophobia typically ebbs and wanes, but since mice reach maturity within weeks of being born, I’m not sure they’d be viable candidates for this.

Either way, I’m sad to say that I don’t think they’ve discovered a genetic cure for stupidity.

Altered rodents

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:17 am

    “Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” … ““We don’t know.”

    Irony alert! Irony alert!

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Uh,y yeah. This one won’t be published in any “Best of Scientific American” anthology.

    Too bad. I think it had potential.

  • 3. Christopher@BorderWars  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:54 am

    I’m still waiting for news of human trials of the “omg no side effects” study that showed fat mice lost a huge percent of their body fat in mere days after having neuro-peptide-y blocked. It blew my mind that the body could possibly process that much fat so fast without, you know, stroking out.

    Combine these two studies together and you’d have the best late night TV ad EVER. “Drop that weight and be a genius in DAYS! Call now. Operators standing by.”

  • 4. M.  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:54 am

    I didn’t want to just cold email the article, but if you’d like it, I’ve got access to PNAS and would be happy to share!

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2011 at 1:10 am

    LOL Christopher – Absolutely, then we buy the product and find out that it just makes us hyperactive and obsessed with seeking dangerous situations.

    Hey – it’s psychopath in a jar!

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