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The Neuroethics and Feasibility of Genetic Engineering on the Nervous System

Enhancement Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Cosmetic surgery was the quackery of the day in nineteenth century America, a practice born of vanity that tampers with the God given. It is, after all, seemingly contrary to the Hippocratic oath as it inflicts harm and no physical relief (Elliot 2007). Now, it is now a mainstream medicine, and even the vainest transformations can be accepted by doctors, clergy and feminists. The view had shifted from ‘enhancement’ to ‘therapy’, becoming, in historian Elizabeth Haiken’s word, ‘psychiatry with a scalpel’, and these conversions are common in medicine where the boundaries between pathology and consumer pressure are indistinct. In the same manner, it is not inconceivable that enhancement NGE technology will come into play as ‘psychiatry with transfection’ in the near future, with a path smoothened in the same way as that for cosmetic surgery by the technology’s use in medicine and in the interests, perhaps, of ‘neruo-equality’.

Neurons and glia are, of course, essential ingredients in what may make you, ‘you’, in that it is in their networks that we harbour our intelligence, memory, voluntary motion, ability to learn etc., a fact appreciable without having to appeal to genetic determinism. Indeed, much of neural interaction, from efficacy to network expansiveness come down to developmental and on-going environmental events more so than genetic scripting. Brain enhancement through synthetic biological methods need not be germline alterations of a consortium of genes in the sense that they have to subscribe to the ‘designer baby’ approach so critiqued in popular culture, but could conceivably be a result of transfecting adult neurons/glia with plasmids, inserting new cells with engineered abilities or otherwise altering synapse strength and the number of inter-neuron/network connections. This is, post embryonic, an invasive type of treatment. Indeed, using microglia to halt the progression of AD, and therefore cognitive loss, by dissolving senile plaques is only one philosophical step (albeit very many scientific steps) from a genetic system for cognitive gain.

Neuro-enhancement would clearly encompass intelligence, but intelligence comprises many different domains all of which have an uncertain genetic basis. Assuming that it is feasible, we can envision a world in which NGE can boost intelligence, combat the neuro-genetic load, induce eidetic memories, help with recall, abolish the need for sleep, endow autistic savant abilities without social skill detriment, etc.

These enhancements cause a variety of neuroethical issues, for example, concerns over social justice. Competition against those that can afford, as opposed to those who cannot, NGE neuro-enhancement is certainly unjust, though perhaps not that different in principle from the poor un-educated vs. the rich private schooled of our nation. However, such employment of NGE may widen that social divide. At the same time, these changes may boost the intellectual power of society generally, and help spur innovative growth and positive social change. Few would argue against a generally more intelligent society, many argue against boosts to certain social strata or populations, however, highlighting the need for mass availability. Of course, mass availability would just raise us to the status quo in terms of relative intelligence, and so perhaps would create a society dependent on, though not necessarily reaping the benefits of, neuro-enhancements. Liberal eugenics is the idea that genetic enhancement could be made available in a biotechnology market place driven by the same consumer laws as any other, but it is a concept which makes a lot of us uneasy, even if we cannot pinpoint why. Perhaps this is because genetic enhancement technology may render indulgers a product not of their actions, but of their choices.

Moreover, as Farah notes, there may well be ‘hidden costs’ in such enhancement, for example the up-regulation of a specific protein may decrease sleep requirements but decrease attention span, or have subtler influences on satiety, irritability, etc., and so may change the dynamics of our society in other, more varied ways. Also, because genes associated with intelligence tend to be multifunctional (pleiotropic), it may not be possible to increase and decrease intelligence in a modular manner to apply enhancements to discrete faculties. Altering the expression of many would also change other physiological parameters, for better or for worse. In fact, it has been suggested that intelligence does not have any real underlying genes, but that intelligence manifests as an emergent property (Mitchell 2013), given sound development from a robust genome and relying on how the brain integrates its components/inputs, though these may be made to diminish/augment (Crabtree III 2013) due to NGE.

Another clear problem already touched on is that of personal identity, if we take personal identity to mean the identity that a person generates over time (Audi 2002). Synthetic neuro-genetic alterations would effect change over a smaller time-frame in a manner quite unlike the slow progression of natural cognitive development. Its impact on personality and identity could therefore be quite dramatic in that such change may lack continuity with one’s previous state of being. Of course, other events can alter identity quickly, for example many forms of trauma, stress and distress, a sudden, precipitous change in circumstance or environment. There is, however, something more intrinsic about tampering with brain cells with NGE, at least in a philosophically aesthetic sense, even if biologically, for example, trauma type events also come with profound neurological change.

Moving along similar lines, it is also plain to see that NGE offers substantial gain to individuals without pain. Its use could lead to an increase in one’s abilities without the concomitant struggle to acquire these improvements, beyond access to the required money. Many would be uncomfortable with a situation in which a diligent, hardworking job applicant with a glowing C.V and a first in, say, a neuroscience Bsc, is piped at the post by his slacker colleague, whose slightly better C.V and his slightly better first is the product of NGE, something he was able to access because he is from a well off background. There is nothing really new here, however, because some people will always have unfair advantages over others, given the environment of their upbringing, the random opportunities they stumble upon and their individual genetic make-ups. New experiences continue to define us. They can better us or worsen us in a fashion partly at the vagarious whims of fate and partly as a consequence of our actions. We are not continually re-defined by new genetic information, because we do not generally receive system scale genetic changes during our lives, and if we do by some early and widespread mutation, it is not directed. Therefore, really, NGE can be seen to level the genetic playing field in a similar manner to how people already change themselves by exposing themselves to different environments, challenges, etc. It might not be earned in the faculty it improves, but we do not earn our ‘starting’ genetic make-ups either.

Some, such as Gerald Crabtree, have suggested that in fact human intelligence is in decline, and so NGE interventions of this kind may be more a solution to a very real problem, than a direct enhancement of abilities. Crabtree makes the argument that prevailing human advancement is a product of societal changes in the face of, and facilitating, raw intellectual degradation. Mean human intelligence may be being eroded by the genetic load incurred through unfavourable mutation and recombination events across the multitude of genes that underlie intellect (Crabtree I 2013)(Crabtree II 2013), in much the same way as the evolutionary degradation of our olfaction (Gilad 2003). Extrapolating from data on the sex-linked X-chromosome (Crabtree I 2013), Crabtree estimates that there are 2,000-5,000 human intellectual deficiency (ID) genes that interact synergistically as opposed to being summative. Therefore, single mutations can damage our holistic intellectual stability. Although intense Palaeolithic selection pressures perhaps served to filter out even minor intellectual defects (Crabtree II 2013), allowing our powerful intelligence to evolve, in modern society slight deficiencies do not necessarily reduce fecundity, especially when masked by nurturing systems, such as education (Crabtree II 2013). Though these claims have been much disputed, if it is the case, NGE may be one of the only ways to help clear out the mutational load.

When it comes to genetic engineering in the brain, one immediately leaps to thinking about intellectual enhancement technologies. However, one relatively overlooked, and at the moment seemingly even more farfetched, idea is that of genospiritual engineering in order to ‘choose one’s degree of religiosity or spiritual sensitivity’ (Charlton 2008) by altering genes associated with inducing trance, delirium and dreams. Scientifically, the concept seems rather fanciful, because of the complexity of inter-gene relations, pleiotropy and the vast environmental impact on the manifestation of these attributes, though inducing or making more inducible at will trance-like states, euphoria, satisfaction, etc., as created by misbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain is certainly a possibility. Charlton suggests that such technology may have commercial appeal, as well as societal in allaying spiritual unease and perhaps promoting altruism (e.g. by expanding the range of ‘greenbeard’ markers (West and Gardner 2010) to which altruists respond), which has been shown to have a genetic basis.

Charlton speaks of engineering shamanistic, animistic and revelatory experiences in a fashion that would appeal to those seeking ‘a more powerful experience’, likely in a trade-off with determination, productivity and status mentalities. However, the desirability of such engineering is probably more questionable than Charlton assumes. It would be opposed both by theists concerned with the artifice and un-spontaneity of engineered religiosity, and atheists who would regard it a nonsensical proliferator of unsound spirituality. Ultimately, this type of NGE would be more comparable to the use of hallucinogens than an enhancement or medical treatment, and suffers risk the same pitfalls of psychedelic drugs no matter how on demand the NGE modifications switch on and off. Genospirituality suffers from a plethora of ethical concerns, more so even than most other areas onto which NGE may one day impinge, because one’s ‘spiritual’ self is wildly seen as innate and integral to an identity which may be substantially altered by such a use of GE, whatever the reality may be.

Ultimately, the danger of NGE enhancement may be much more subtle. Greater genetic choice and malleability may encourage the fortunate to see their talents as earned, rather than what nature has granted them, something for which they should be grateful and respectful. It may undermine our sensitivities towards the less and more fortunate (Elliott 2007). The genetic lottery of life is not always fair, but it is that unfairness that encourages and nurtures empathy from solidarity in society. At the same time, whilst many might disparage enhancement technology, NGE or otherwise, by making a case against perfection it would seem that the consumer market for these products lie mostly with those on the wrong side of the bell curve. NGE enhancement would be marketed at those uncomfortable about their height, weight, confidence, sexual adequacy, etc. If these people suffer in an emotional sense because of their perceived inadequacy, then is it not the duty of the scientist and the physician to design and deliver technologies to help?


Introduction: Medicine and Synthetic Biology

Medical Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Therapeutic Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Enhancement Neuro-Genetic Engineering

The Core of the Neuroethical Debate