Does the Human Brain Possess Potential “Super Powers”?

A Daily Galaxy post last year, ‘The Importance of Being Forgetful’, featured the built-in neural process of forgetting, which discussed why the average human brain is equipped with the ability to filter through seemingly irrelevant details. While the average person may not have vast memory resources, it appears to be an evolutionary trade-off that allows the majority of us to focus on the most relevant facts.

However, some of the most incredible minds on Earth lack this ability to filter irrelevant facts, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that to a savant, the irrelevant IS relevant, and incredibly so. Somehow their brains are able to store and access incredible loads of information, even perceiving and relating to this information in an entirely different way.

Stephen Wiltshire is considered an autistic savant. He has an ability which can certainly be described as a “super power”. Sometimes referred to as the “human camera”, Wilshire has the unnerving ability to draw exact replicas of intricate structures, buildings and landscapes—virtually anything he lays eyes on—after a quick glance. Without taking notes or drawing rough sketches, Wiltshire methodically replicates what his eyes have seen down to the exact number of windows in tall skyscrapers.

Like many other savants, Wiltshire’s mind is a mystery. He did not speak his first words, “pencil” and “paper” until he was five years old. Savants like Wiltshire seem to have been born fundamentally different.

Imagine being able to learn one of the most difficult languages on Earth, Icelandic, in just 7 days. Well known Savant, Daniel Tammet, makes it look easy. His extraordinary abilities are linked to synesthesia. He “feels” numbers in terms of texture, shape and color. Some scientists believe that the epileptic seizures he suffered as a small child, which nearly ended his life, somehow unlocked the door to an incredible ability that may be inherent in all humans.

Individuals have been known to develop extraordinary abilities much later in life, or after severe brain trauma. Alonzo Clemons, for example, developed an incredible talent, which appears to have emerged directly following a head injury as a child. He can see a fleeting image (on a television screen for example) of any animal, and in less than 20 minutes sculpt a perfect replica of that animal in three-dimensional accuracy. The wax animal is correct in each and every detail, down to each fiber and muscle.

Similarly, Orlando Serrell did not possess any unusual skills until he was struck by a baseball on the left side of his head on August 17, 1979 when he was ten years old. Serrell suffered from a long headache, but after the headache ended, Orlando inexplicably had the ability to perform calendrical calculations of amazing complexity. He can also recall details of his life, like the weather, where he was, and what he was doing every day since the day that baseball hit his head.

Because of cases like these, some scientists believe that the potential to express multiple super-abilities is a universal trait, but is obscured by the normal functioning intellect. In the case of some savants, it is believed that damage to the brain has somehow disrupted normal functioning and therefore allows the brain to express these incredible skills and abilities. Various researchers have noted how many “disabled” individuals are simultaneously “superabled” through some little understood phenomenon.

Mind expert Allan Snyder of the University of Sydney and director of Centre for the Mind, is certain that all people have these latent super abilities, but only some are able to express them through “malfunctions” of overriding brain functions.

“They are exceptional in that they can tap in and somehow we can’t. They have privileged access,” said Snyder.

So, if all of us have latent super-abilities, is it possible to activate them permanently, or at least periodically, without compromising normal brain functioning? Probably, say the Australian scientists who used transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily switch off the frontal temporal lobe of volunteers.  Afterwards the subjects showed an immediate improvement in calendar calculating, naming the day of the week of any recent history event, and in their artistic abilities. Of course these were just the abilities tested. Scientists do not know all of the latent abilities that humans may possess.

It has been predicted that more advanced neurological studies may someday discover how to allow “Regular” people to tap into the incredible latent powers of their own mind, and thereby unleashing some of the “superhuman” potential in all of us.

Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome, sometimes referred to as savantism, is a rare condition in which people with developmental disorders have one or more areas of expertise, ability, or brilliance that are in contrast with the individual’s overall limitations. Although not a recognized medical diagnosis, researcher Darold Treffert says the condition may be either genetic or acquired.

According to Treffert, about half of all people with savant syndrome have autistic disorder, while the other half have another developmental disability, mental retardation, brain injury or disease. He says, “… not all autistic people have savant syndrome and not all people with savant syndrome have autistic disorder”. Other researchers state that autistic traits and savant skills may be linked, or have challenged conclusions about savant syndrome as being based on information not verified independently.

Though it is even rarer than the savant condition itself, some savants have no apparent abnormalities other than their unique abilities. This does not mean that these abilities weren’t triggered by a brain dysfunction of some sort but does temper the theory that all savants are disabled and that some sort of trade-off is required.

According to Treffert, something that almost all savants have in common is a prodigious memory of a special type, a memory that he describes as “very deep, but exceedingly narrow”. It is wide in the sense that they can recall but have a hard time putting it to use). Also, many savants are found to have superior artistic or musical ability.

Savant-like skills may be latent in everyone and have been stimulated in people by directing low-frequency magnetic pulses into the brain’s left hemisphere, which is thought to deactivate this dominant region (in at least 90% of right-handed people) and allow the less dominant right hemisphere to take over, allowing for processing of savant-like tasks.

According to Treffert:

  • One in ten autistic people have savant skills.
  • 50% of savants are autistic; the other 50% often have psychological disorders or mental illnesses.
  • Prodigious savants have very little disability.

A 2009 British study of 137 parents with autistic children found that 28% believed their offspring met the criteria for a savant skill, that is, a skill or power “at a level that would be unusual even for normal people”.

Is Human Immortality A Scientific Reality?

In 1786, average life expectancy was just 24 years. A hundred years later (1886) it doubled to 48. Right now a newborn can expect to live an average of 76 years. With recent discoveries in biology, many scientists predict that life expectancy will continue to triple-digits. In fact, if they are correct, humans shouldn’t have to die at all in the future.

“Over half the baby boomers here in America are going to see their hundredth birthday and beyond in excellent health. We’re looking at life spans for the baby boomers and the generation after the baby boomers of 120 to 150 years of age.” — Dr. Ronald Klatz of the American Academy of Anti-Aging.

Today’s quest for the fountain of youth is taking scientists inside the genetic structure of cells and paying less attention to the role of stress and diet on life spans. Would-be immortals flock to anti-aging clinics and shell out as much as $20,000 a year for treatments that include hormone therapy, DNA analysis and even anti-aging cosmetic surgery. These experimental therapies offer no guarantees of immortality, just the promise of prolonging life.

“Anti-aging medicine is not about stretching out the last years of life. It’s about stretching out the middle years of life… and actually compressing those last few years of life so that diseases of aging happen very, very late in the life cycle, just before death, or don’t happen at all”said Dr. Klatz.

Why do we age and die?

The cause of what we call “aging” is now being understood. This new understanding may soon move anti-aging cosmetics and surgery to the ranks of snake oil and Siberian yogurt as life-extension fads — but not yet. There are a few obstacles that need to be addressed.

Just when you thought that holographic TV and outer space travel were on the future horizon of modern technology, immortality has silently been revealing itself to scientists like Doctor John Langmore of the University of Michigan’s Department of Biology.

Dr. Langmore and his group looked inside human cells, at the very essence of human life: the DNA molecule. Specifically, Dr. Langmore looked at the tips of the DNA molecule — a previously overlooked part of the double-helix molecule — that contain a kind of chain of repeating pairs of enzymes.

Called telomeres, these molecular chains have often been compared to the blank leaders on film and recording tape. Indeed, telomeres seem to perform a similar function. During the replication process the spiral DNA molecule must split in half and reassemble a copy of itself. Protecting the vital DNA molecule from being copied out of synch, telomeres provide a kind of buffer zone where mis-alignments (which are inevitable) will not result in any of the important DNA code being lost.

Perhaps the best analogy I have heard is to compare the telomeres to the white margin surrounding an important type written document. In this analogy, the printed text is the vital DNA code while the white space is the “blank” telomeres. Imagine that this paper is repeatedly slapped on a copy machine, a copy is made, and then that copy is used to make another copy. Each time the paper is subject to errors of alignment and these errors accumulate. After enough copying, it is probable that the white space will diminish and some of the actual text will not be copied. That’s what happens inside our cells and it is the reason we get old and die.

As any cell gets older, it is under attack by oxides and free-radicals in the body and environment. We survive as living beings because our cells have the ability to duplicate and replace themselves before being killed by these natural causes. Each time our cells divide, the DNA molecule makes a new copy of itself.

DNA is a complex molecule that resembles a spiral ladder. When it divides, it splits along the “rungs” then each half of this “ladder” rebuilds the missing half — voila! — Two DNA molecules. Now the cell can divide. The old cell dies and the new cell continues on.

But the procedure is very complex and not perfect. Usually a small portion of the DNA molecule is lost, misaligned and not copied. Since errors are more frequent on the ends of the DNA molecule, this area, the telomere, does not contain any important DNA information and the effect is insignificant.

Telomeres — programmed to die!

Scientists observe that the length of telomere chains becomes shorter as we grow older. Eventually the telomeres become so short that cell replication produces lethal errors or missing pieces in the DNA sequence, ending the cell’s ability to replace itself. This point, when the cell has lost vital DNA code and cannot reproduce, is called the Hayflick limit. It’s the measure of how many times a cell can copy itself before it dies.

Some cells in our body have a very high hayflick limit. Cells that line the inside of your mouth and intestines, for example, are constantly being worn away and replaced. Indeed these cells appear to have the ability to regrow telomeres even in aged bodies. Scientists were curious why some cells shut down telomere growth with age, and some do not.

Dr. Langmore used physical, biochemical, and genetic techniques to study the structure and function of telomeres. His group developed a cell-free system to reconstitute functional model telomeres using synthetic DNA, and studied the mechanism by which telomeres normally stabilize chromosomes and how shortening of the telomeres could cause instability.

The protein factors responsible for stabilizing the ends of chromosomes are being identified, cloned, and studied. Electron microscopy is used to directly visualize the structure of the model telomeres. Dr. Langmore’s group used new enzymatic assays to determine the structure of telomere DNA in normal and abnormal cells grown in vivo and in vitro, in order to address specific hypotheses about the role of telomeres in aging and cancer. It’s exciting research, for sure, and there have been some promising discoveries.

Scientists have discovered an important enzyme that can turn the telomere production on the DNA molecule “on” and “off.” It’s called telomerase. Not surprisingly, it seems that as we get older, the amount of telomerase in our cells decreases.

The Cancer Problem

You might be wondering why biologists don’t simply find a way to keep our body’s telomeres long. This would prevent replication errors and humans could live indefinitely. The big problem is cancer.

Usually, if a cell makes an error in copying itself, the error will prevent the cell from duplicating itself in the future. So the mistake is limited. But with cancer, cells with errors somehow “turn on” the production of telomerase and make the mutant cell immortal. Now, aberrant cells can reproduce unchecked and outlive normal cells. This is the process that creates tumors.

Since we all have mutant, pre-cancerous cells in our bodies, nature has decided to shut off the telomerase as we age, thus preventing these mutant cells from growing telomeres. It’s a kind of programmed death — a trade off to reduce our lifespan in order to save us from being riddled with tumors. Nevertheless, some pre-cancerous cells manage to re-activate their telomeres and this has caused the research to focus more on blocking telomere production rather than trying to extend it.

Right: A 3-d rendering of the telomerase enzyme.] The molecular structure shows an interesting “groove” (shown in green) where the enzyme attaches to the end of the DNA molecule.

Anti-cancer researchers believe that by introducing a molecule to block this groove, the telomerase would become unable to attach itself to the DNA and thereby limit the length of telomere production. While this work holds hope for stopping tumor cells from reproducing forever, it does little to extend healthy cells from being rejuvinated. However, if the molecular “blocker” could specifically target only cancerous cells, without blocking telomerase activity in healthy cells, it could be a step towards human life extension if and when a pharmaceutical can be developed that activates telomerase in the human body.

Interview with Dr. Langmore

Viewzone, a popular television documentary station, asked Dr. Langmore to give his thoughts on the role of telomerase, and the possibilities of using it to repair and lengthen telomeres in human cells. His comments follow:

Telomeres are special, essential DNA sequences at both ends of each chromosome. Each time chromosomes replicate a small amount of the DNA at both ends is lost, by an uncertain mechanism. Because human telomeres shorten at a much faster rate than many lower organisms, we speculate that this telomere shortening probably has a beneficial effect for humans, namely mortality. The telomere hypothesis of aging postulates that as the telomeres naturally shorten during the lifetime of an individual, a signal or set of signals is given to the cells to cause the cells to cease growing (senesce). At birth, human telomeres are about 10,000 base pairs long, but by 100 years of age this has been reduced to about 5,000 base pairs.

Telomerase is actually an enzyme (a catalytic protein) that is able to arrest or reverse this shortening process. Normally, telomerase is only used to increase the length of telomeres during the formation of sperm and perhaps eggs, thus ensuring that our offspring inherit long “young” telomeres to propagate the species.

How is mortality in non-germ line cells a beneficial effect?

Dr. Langmore: The telomere hypothesis of cancer is that the function of telomere shortening is to cause cells that have lost normal control over growth to senesce (i.e. stop growing) before being able to replicate enough times to become a tumor, thus decreasing the frequency of cancer.

Immortal cells like cancer have an unfair advantage over normal human cells which are designed to senesce. But nature seems to have planned this human telomere shortening perhaps to prolong life by hindering the otherwise unchecked growth of non-immortal or benign tumors. Malignant or immortal tumors can simply outlive the rest of the organism.

Malignant cancer cells are being studied because they appear to have altered the shortening of telomeres by turning “on” the telomerase. Thus it appears that some cancers and aging are both connected with the biology of telomeres.

It is possible that increasing telomerase activity in normal cells might stop the biological clock of aging, yet the side effect of this intervention might be an increase in the rate of cancer. Further understanding and refinement in the telomere hypothesis might lead to a way to slow the aging process and prevent or arrest cancer.

However telomeres function, they are an integral part in the very complex process of cell growth, involving many other factors as well. Telomerase might be the Achilles Heal of aging and cancer, but as our understanding of factors that interact with telomerase, factors that are responsible for telomere shortening in the first place, and non-telomerase mechanisms for increasing the length of telomeres, we might find that one of these factors is more easily manipulated to slow aging or prevent cancer. Also there are additional factors that affect aging and cancer, which might prove in the end to be more important than telomeres and telomerase.

 Are telomeres unique to individual DNA? If so, does this preclude any universal treatment for aging?

Dr. Langmore: Different individuals have telomeres with exactly the same DNA sequence but of different lengths. It is too early to say whether there is any relationship between telomere length in an individual and his or her life expectancy, or whether a treatment that would artificially lengthen telomeres would arrest (or reverse) the aging process. One problem is that even in one individual the telomeres of different chromosomes have very different lengths. Therefore an individual might have on average long telomeres; but, he might have one chromosome with a very short telomere that could affect cell growth.

 In the work of Shay and Wright (see below), increased telomere length was positively associated with telomerase. How significant is this?

Dr. Langmore: Shay, Wright and all their many collaborators stimulated telomerase activity in normal cells. This was expected to 1) Increase the length of telomeres and 2) Prolong the lifetime of the cells in tissue culture. The treatment did both, in perfect agreement with the telomere hypothesis of aging.

How much was cell lifetime prolonged due to this treatment that reactivated telomerase?

Dr. Langmore: The increased proliferation of the cells was perhaps equivalent to hundreds of years of human life.

Dr. Langmore received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago in 1975. He has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and at the University of Basel.

More links to cancer

In the March 15 issue of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Journal, Dr. Jerry Shay and Dr. Woodring Wright, both professors of cell biology and neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, report manipulating the length of telomeres to alter the life span of human cells. Shay and Wright are the first to report this important finding. They received an Allied-Signal Award for Research on Aging to explore this line of research last year.

“By lengthening the telomere, we were able to extend the life of the cell hybrids,” Wright explained. “This study is strong evidence that telomere length is the clock that counts cell divisions.”

“The expression of the enzyme telomerase maintains stable telomere length. Telomerase is not detected in normal cells and telomeres shorten and then the cells stop dividing and enter a phase called cellular senescence.”

Shay and Wright have shown in earlier studies that telomeres maintain their length in almost all human cancer cell lines. This correlated with inappropriate expression of telomerase and as a consequence allowed the cell to become “immortal.” Cell immortality is a critical and perhaps rate-limiting step for almost all cancers to progress. Previous work by the UT Southwestern investigators showed that in a special group of advanced pediatric cancers the lack of telomerase activity correlated with critically shortened telomeres and cancer remission.

Naturally, the exploration of this enzyme is now the focus of much investigation, but for now the research is aimed at understanding how to turn telomeres “off” to limit the spread of “immortal” cancer cells.

Abnormally high levels of telomerase have been found in cancerous breast cells and have been evident in many kinds of tumors. Consequently, an idea gaining momentum is that the ability to measure and perhaps alter telomere length and/or telomerase activity may give physicians new diagnostic and treatment tools for managing the care of patients with cancer.

Shay and Wright tried to alter already-immortal cells by attempting to inhibit telomerase activity and cause telomeres to shorten. “Unexpectedly, we found the opposite result. Rather than inhibiting telomerase, our treatment caused the immortal cells to develop longer telomeres,” Shay explained. “Although we were surprised with the result, we now know there is a causal relationship between telomere length and the proliferate capacity of cells.

“Essentially, we combined the tumor cells containing experimentally elongated telomeres with normal cells and extended the life span of those cell hybrids compared to similar hybrids using cells without experimentally elongated telomeres.”

Shay and Wright said the mechanism that causes telomeres to lengthen is still unclear. However, Shay said, “Our observations increase confidence in the hypothesis that immortal cells and reactivated telomerase are essential components of human tumors. Ultimately, we may be able to regulate tumor cells by inhibiting telomerase activity.”

The potential implications for research on human aging also are significant. “It is still speculative, but understanding the role of telomere shortening in cell aging may give us the information we need to increase the life span of an organism,” Wright said.

A New Player: Progeren?

Scientists now believe that the protein called progerin, causing rapid aging symptons in progeria victims [Right], is the same protein that causes our own more standard aging.

Progerin stems from a gene mutation that shows up in abundance in the disease but in more manageable quantities in all of us. It causes extreme premature aging.

“When the telomeres become too short and frayed, this triggers the production of progerin, signaling to the body that the cell is at the end of its useful life.” — Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health

Studies are underway to block the excess production of the protein in children with progeria, which may in turn lead to slowing our own aging and preventing age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Rust Never Sleeps

DNA damage occurs continuously in living cells. While most of this damage is repaired, some accumulates. The DNA Polymerases and other repair mechanisms cannot keep up with defects as fast as they are produced. In particular, DNA damage accumulates in non-dividing cells of mammals, but all cells eventually need to reproduce and let their “other half” carry on.

Most damage comes in the form of oxidative damage — the same “rusting” process that oxidizes iron. Arteriosclerosis and heart disease are the results of this type of damage to the cells lining the blood vessels.

Without the ability to duplicate and repair itself, the cell “rusts” to death. In this way we gradually lose members of our youth — one cell at a time. We wear out and become a mortal.

Is Long Life Inherited?

If your family has a history of living to an old age, it is likely that your telomeres are longer and therefore protect the critical DNA information when your cells make copies of themselves.

In a general population, the people who live longer usually have more offspring. So it follows that the number of people having longer telomeres would increase. But there’s the cancer problem. The immortal cancerous cells that we all produce outlive normal cells and eventually express themselves in tumors, shortening life. These two opposing consequences of long telomeres, positive and negative, are balanced by natural selection. The compromise is currently programmed for an average life expectancy of 76 years.

Environmental Factors?

Our cells are bombarded by environmental poisons that can cause the genetic codes to break, regardless of the telomere length. The more toxic the environment is, the greater the chance for “broken” cells to reproduce them and the more beneficial it would be to have shorter telomeres to limit this kind of mutation.

What would happen if a population was forced to have offspring at a very young age, eliminating the impact of a toxic environment? This is exactly what happens to laboratory rats and mice that are artificially bred. Their breeding environment is usually free of toxins and highly controlled, thus favoring the expression of longer telomeres. This fact is important because rats and mice are traditionally used to test for toxicity of products in humans. In short: the rats may be too healthy to be our experimental surrogate.

Children of young mothers live longer

It has also been noted that children of young mothers seem to live longer than children of older mothers. This is because all of the eggs of a female are produced while she is still in her mother’s womb. She is born with all of the egg cells that she will ever have. The telomeres of the early produced eggs are very long but become shortened as more are made. So a woman has a finite number of eggs, some with long telomeres and some with shorter telomeres. After birth, when the female reaches puberty, these long-telomere egg cells are the first to be released by the ovaries, and the first to become potential embryos. Thus, having children as near to puberty as possible increases the chance that the offspring will inherit long telomeres. It also explains why having children later in life increases the chance for birth defects or miscarriages. This is precisely what is happening to the laboratory rat and mice populations, who are forced to breed early, and explains why these lab animals have unusually long telomeres compared to animals in the general “wild” population.

It is possible to become immortal and younger

Many have wondered what benefit an older person would have from an immortality medicine. Would they have to be old forever? Thankfully, no. Scientists have already reversed aging, transforming the slow and feeble into the quick and virile.

Harvard scientists reverse the ageing process in mice

Harvard scientists were surprised that they saw a dramatic reversal, not just a slowing down, of the ageing in mice. Now they believe they might be able to regenerate human organs.

Laboratory mouse in a scientist’s hand in mice, reactivating the enzyme telomerase led to the repair of damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.

Scientists claim to be a step closer to reversing the ageing process after rejuvenating worn out organs in elderly mice. The experimental treatment developed by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, turned weak and feeble old mice into healthy animals by regenerating their aged bodies.

The surprise recovery of the animals has raised hopes among scientists that it may be possible to achieve a similar feat in humans — or at least to slow down the ageing process.

An anti-ageing therapy could have a dramatic impact on public health by reducing the burden of age-related health problems, such as dementia, stroke and heart disease, and prolonging the quality of life for an increasingly aged population.

“What we saw in these animals was not a slowing down or stabilization of the ageing process. We saw a dramatic reversal and that was unexpected,” said Ronald DePinho, who led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.


So for humans to extend life we must do two things: first, eliminate the toxins in our environment that rust the cells. Remember the hayflick limit. A toxic environment can run through those allotted duplications at an accelerated rate.

Next we wait for a scientific breakthrough — perhaps some pharmaceutical that will re-activate telomere production in healthy cells only. Understanding and controlling telomeres in healthy and cancerous cells will lead to a cure or prevention of cancer. If mortality still eludes us at least that will greatly extend our lives.

The twenty-first century may well be the era in which humans learn the secrets of life extension, but it may also be a time to be reminded of the many dangers inherent in exploring and exploiting these god-like abilities. Environmental pollution, overpopulation, food shortages, and the concentration of wealth by the few are all factors that pre-destine human immortality to be a highly controversial issue.

“Humans are designing their Evolution”

In the past decade, we’ve examined our Solar System’s orbit through the Milky Way to ask whether there may be clues to periodic mass extinctions on our planet. We’ve launched missions seeking out habitable Alien Earths and the existence of dark energy and have migrated from wondering if there’s life on Mars to searching out and studying myriads of exo planets in the Milky Way and infinite galaxies beyond.

Physicist Stephen Hawking believes that we have entered a new phase of evolution.

“At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information.”

But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred.

“I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race,” Hawking said.

In the last ten thousand years the human species has  been in what Hawking calls, “an external transmission phase,” where the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. “But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage,” Hawking says, “has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes.”

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, has collapsed to about 50 years, or less. Meanwhile, Hawking observes, our human brains “with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written.”

But we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls “self designed evolution,” in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. “At first,” he continues “these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.”

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA, based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

Genetic Engineering

It all starts with DNA, Deoxyribonucleic Acid. Without understanding our DNA genetic engineering is impossible.

At present, we have information about approximately 50% of our genes and science is leaping ahead developing new ways to use this knowledge and expand it. Genetic Engineering is a controversial and complex subject, fraught with ethical and moral debates, full of intriguing science and medicine.

Here, at the predictions of the future of human evolution we will look at it all: the political, religious, moral, scientific and medical. You can use the menu on the left to explore the issues we have already covered, and we are continuously adding to this content so it’s always worth checking back.

In terms of human evolution we see genetic engineering as falling into five key areas; Disease Prevention and Elimination, Longevity, Adaptability, Capacity and Fashion. We will be covering each of these areas in more depth.

Disease Elimination

Disease, by its very nature, has a genetic component. A disease is either inherited or the result of the body’s response to environmental elements such as a virus. At present human genetic engineering is primarily carried out through a process known as Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis or Selection either PGD or PGS. No real engineering takes place, what happens is single cells are removed from embryos using the same process as used in In – Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). These cells are then examined to identify which are carrying the genetic disorder, which are not. The embryos that have the genetic disorder are discarded, those that don’t are returned to the uterus in the hope that a baby will be born, without the genetic disorder. Only previously identified genetic disorders can be tested for, there is no ‘catch all’ testing. What this means is that if the parents fear their unborn child might inherit a disease or disorder they can choose to have their embryos tested for that specific disease or disorder.

Some examples of disorders that can be tested for are:

• Down’s Syndrome
• Tay-Sach Disease
• Sickle Cell Anaemia
• Cystic Fibrosis
• Huntington’s disease

There are of course many others than can be tested for and medical and scientific institutes are constantly searching for and developing new tests.

This procedure is fairly uncontroversial, it does however have its critics who argue that human life starts at conception and therefore the embryo is sacrosanct and should not be tampered with or that we simply should not be messing around with our genetic makeup and the results are unstable and unpredictable.

Another use for this technique is gender selection, which is where the issue becomes slightly more controversial. Some disorders or diseases are gender specific, so instead of testing for the disease or disorder the gender of the embryo is tested for and whichever gender is ‘undesirable’ is discarded. This brings up huge issues about the ethics of gender selection and the consequences for the gender balance of humankind.

A more recent development is the testing of the embryos for tissue matching. The embryos are tested for a tissue match for a sibling that has already developed or is in danger of developing, a genetic disease or disorder. The purpose is to produce a baby who can be a tissue donor. This is known as Sibling Savers. Again this technique has caused much controversy as the purpose of the testing was seen as being not for the purpose of disease elimination directly. This technique is one step forward in the search for ways to treat and cure, rather than eliminate, genetic disease and disorder and for finding ways to use these techniques in the use of genes as a cure i.e. the introduction of a modified gene that could perhaps suppress a tumour growth. This is known as Gene Therapy.

The next step in disease elimination is to attempt to refine a process known as Human Germline Engineering. Whereas PGD affects only the immediate offspring germline engineering seeks to affect the genes that are carried in the ova and sperm and thus eliminate the disease or disorder from all future generations making it no longer inheritable. The possibilities for germline engineering and gene therapy go beyond the elimination of disease and move us into the other spheres of influence we identified earlier; longevity, capacity, adaptability and fashion.

Who wants to live forever?

From the minute we are born we start on the road to death; a harsh fact, but that is the reality at present and likely to be so for a very long time to come. For centuries humanity has been searching for ways to extend our life expectancy. History, myth and legend are full of stories of the search for eternal youth. In the 1500’s Juan Ponce De Leon searched for a Fountain of Youth in the Southern Americas. Before that, around the 1100’s, a Fountain of Youth was reported to exist in the legendary realm of Prester John. Roman, Greek, Norse mythology, all have stories of gods and goddesses with the ability to grant eternal youth or sources of such. Despite the legends and myths humanity has so far failed to unlock the whole secret of staying young. What has been achieved is a longer life expectancy. We have achieved this by improving our knowledge of disease and illness, by eliminating some and finding cures for others. We have a far greater understanding of our bodies, our bodily needs and how to protect ourselves from disease.

Humanity has managed to extend life expectancy greatly. 2000 years ago you could expect to live between 18 and 21 years, by the 1900’s we had increased that to 30 years and by the 1980’s we had reached a world average life expectancy of 62 years at which point it levels out. However, this figure varies hugely across the globe. Economic and political factors have great bearing on life expectancy; the lowest life expectancies are in the African countries of Malawi and Mozambique where you can expect to live around 36 years, whilst the highest are in Japan, Andorra and San Marino, which have life expectancies of around 80 to 83 years. Not satisfied with living longer we also want to stay young, fit and healthy. Some of the most profitable companies are those that produce and market beauty and health pills and potions.

Why we age

Science doesn’t actually know exactly why we age, though it has made progress in beginning to understand the process. Scientists in a variety of fields have found that a large number of gene sequences play a role in the process of aging. They have identified the SIR2 gene and its relationship to metabolism as possibly one of the major contributors to aging. What this does is turn on some genes within a cell and turn off others. Some of the researchers made similar correlations between a cells use of calories and the life span of flies, doubling not only their life span but also their ‘middle age’. Other research has shown that aging happens because cells cease to have the ability to continue to divide. This is known as cellular senescence. Over time cells divide, replicate and repair themselves. However there are a finite number of times that cells can perform this task, further more this number is fixed, slowing down or freezing a cell does not affect the number of times it can divide. What seems to cause this cellular senescence is the breakdown of the telomeres. Telomeres are pieces of DNA that act as a kind of protective end to a chromosome. What seems to happen is that when a cell divides the telomere curls back around to continue to protect the end. However each time the cell divides the telomere gets shorter, eventually it becomes too short to curl back far enough and thus can no longer properly protect the chromosome.
An interesting anomaly seems to occur in cancer cells which appear to be able to produce an enzyme called telomerase that a cell can use to rebuild its telomeres and continue dividing beyond its assumed allotted amount.

How can we live longer?

We have already touched one way that the human race has found to extend our life span, through the development of better health and social conditions, but what does the future hold? What areas are being researched and developed and which are most likely to produce the next leap in life expectancy?

There are three main types of cloning technique, each used for different purposes. They are:

•Recombinant DNA Technology or DNA Cloning:
Used to clone a specific gene, the technique has been in use since the 1970’s and is commonly used in molecular biology labs.

• Reproductive Cloning:
Genetic material is transferred from the nucleus of an adult donor cell to a enucleated egg, the egg is then stimulated to encourage division, once a suitable stage has been achieved the egg is transferred to a uterus and brought to term. This technique was used to produce Dolly the sheep and has since been used to produce many other animals with varying degrees of success.
The most recent, a horse, was reported in April 2005.

• Therapeutic Cloning or embryo cloning:
The basic procedure is the same as that for Reproductive Cloning however the use is different. The embryo is never returned to the uterus and it is not intended to be brought to term, rather it is used as a source for embryonic stem cells which can then be used to produce any kind of organ or tissue which will have a DNA match to the cell donor.

An interesting result of the Dolly experiment was that scientists found that cells were not as specialist as had been previously believed and could be reprogrammed to produce completely different organisms. For example; a cell taken from an udder could produce a liver or heart or, as in the case of Dolly, a whole sheep. It had previously been thought that once a cell had taken on its specialism the redundant genes that had become inactive, could not be reactivated. Dolly showed that this was not so and meant that the cloning of organs for transplant suddenly became much easier. If we can genetically engineer or clone a new organ to replace the one that is faulty, we could ultimately live a very much extended life. Medicine can, already, replace some defective organs by transplanting a donated organ but the donor organ must be a tissue match. If the donor tissue and the recipient’s tissue don’t match then the organ is rejected and therefore useless.

If an organ can be grown using extracted DNA then the tissue will of course match. The idea is this; DNA is extracted from the patient and inserted into an enucleated egg. After the egg containing the patient’s DNA starts to divide, embryonic stem cells that can be transformed into any type of tissue would be harvested. The stem cells would be used to generate an organ or tissue that is a genetic match to the recipient. In 1997 scientists in the USA caused huge controversy when they revealed that they had grown a ‘human ear’ on the back of a mouse and hoped to be able to develop techniques to grow more complex tissues such as livers. In 2000 the scientists who brought us Dolly also brought us cloned pigs. This was useful because pig organs are the mostly likely ones to be able to be used for xeno transplantation; genetically modifying animal organs, tissue and cells for use in human transplantation. Since then both the Dolly team and a team from the University of Missouri in Columbia have progressed the work and produced a series of litters of piglets that have been progressively modified to make them yet more suitable as organ donors.

Whilst not strictly lengthening our life span, whole body cloning is certainly the ultimate in immortality. If we can extract our DNA and transplant or store it we really do have the opportunity to ‘live forever’. There is a separate section on this site about human cloning.

Aubrey de Grey, a scientist working in the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University, believes he has found the cure for aging. He has mapped out a detailed plan that is a strategy for scientists within the various fields of genetic engineering. He believes that, rather than trying to slow down aging by a process of damage limitation, scientists should be seeking to ‘repair or obviate the accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which it reaches pathogenic levels.


The human body is a remarkable thing with enormous natural capabilities and capacity that we can choose to develop as we wish. We can develop our muscular capacity to lift more than three times our own body weight; we can train our minds to recall thousands of facts or numbers. Record book are full of these amazing feats and achievements. Not only that but when faced with danger to ourselves or others we can reach into our reserves and use as yet untapped resources and skills.

And we can do all this without the assistance of science or medicine. Add into the mix genetic engineering and its associated sciences and the potential for human endeavour is extraordinary and controversial.

For centuries we have been performing genetic manipulation; as a species we learnt early to identify the healthiest, strongest animals, those with the traits that were most desirable and to use them for breeding the next generation, genetic engineering at its most basic.

As humans we choose our breeding partners for very similar reasons, though perhaps less consciously. We want the healthiest, most intelligent, most attractive gene supply. But, these terms are subjective, what is attractive to one person is not necessarily the same for the next, some people value artistic rather than academic skills.

How do we measure intelligence? IQ tests, for example, only measure a certain kind of intelligence. What about undesirable traits such as criminality? These are big questions and debates and will be covered in a future article that will look beyond the technical.

Lets start simply; most certainly the time is fast approaching when we will be able to genetically modify, using stem cell engineering, our major organs, heart, lungs, liver etc. At present this research is aimed at organ repair and renewal and at creating ‘designer babies’, embryos that are chosen and/or engineered for specific traits. Potentially these techniques could be used for organ enhancement; a heart that pumped more efficiently would increase an athlete’s performance. Genetically modified muscle cells, introduced into the person would increase their strength. The list of opportunities for modifying humans for enhanced capacity is enormous. The possible usage is limited only by our imagination.

The major organs have relatively simple, specialist functions, ergo; the genetic engineering of these organs is relatively simple. It is when we get on to the brain and intelligence that the story gets a little more complex.

Researchers believe they have begun to identify the genes that give us our intelligence. However, there is a huge debate about how much ‘intelligence’ is derived from genes and how much from environmental influences. The jury is still out on whether our cognitive abilities are purely genetic, the most likely scenario is that it is a combination of factors that give us our ‘intelligence’.

However, if we can identify the ‘genius gene’ it may be possible to override the influence of our environment. We could use present technologies such as PGD to choose only those embryos that demonstrate the desired gene sequences or we could genetically engineer embryos to include certain chosen traits, say musicality or enhanced language skills. Another avenue might be to use stem cells to implant the required genes into an adult to enhance their mental capacity. Experimentation is quite advanced in the area of treatment for neurological disease and disorder and it is not such a huge leap to foresee the use of this technology for the enhancement of brain functions.


At the moment adaptation of the human form is purely speculative and all a bit Sci-Fi. This is great because it means that our imaginations can run wild. All those things we wished we could do but our bodies don’t let us become possible. What if we could develop wings? Survive underwater? Or completely adapt for survival in currently hostile environments; places of extreme temperature, where gravitational pull is higher or lower, the air unbreathable – i.e. other planets. Maybe we would want to adapt ourselves to have very long limbs or to be very short because it suited our chosen profession. Or what about getting the eyes of a hawk or the skin of a rhino, all of these adaptations have their potential uses.

Of course, at present we do not have the technology or the knowledge to make these kinds of radical changes to ourselves, but it could happen with genetic engineering, gene and stem cell therapy. We could pre-create the desired human using genetically engineered cells to produce the necessary tissue or organs. DNA could be cloned and the genes manipulated and used to create the future human. Stem cells manipulated and implanted What about trait genes, tissue or organs from animals, developed for human use. We could grow new, different organs altered to suit a particular purpose.

With an ever growing population more control over our reproductive process may well be desirable. At present, women have a regular fertile period each month for a set period of years. But what if we could find a way to turn on and turn off that fertile period. We could alter ourselves to basically not have a fertile period until we wanted. Firstly we would alter the reproductive system to not work until we were ready and willing.


There are quite a few problems to solve before humans can become pseudo fish. First and foremost how will we breathe? Even fish need oxygen, they use gills instead of lungs to extract the oxygen from the water. Maybe we would want to be able to exist both in and out of water. We could perhaps learn something from the various animals that have the ability to use both a gill and a lung system that means they can breathe both air borne and water borne oxygen – bimodal breathing. Secondly, how do we deal with the pressure imbalance that causes the bends. Thirdly, what about our skin? We all know the consequences of staying in the water too long; our skin has only a limited tolerance to saturation. Fourthly, a few minor things like flipper feet and hands, eye protection and visual capacity, communication, temperature tolerance to name but a few. Basically a large proportion of the human machine would need to be redesigned.

Here are a few suggestions for some of the necessary alterations. We know that we can’t breathe underwater, our lungs do not have the capacity to extract enough oxygen from water but we can breathe whilst submerged in other liquids such asperfluorocarbon (PFC) which are denser and more oxygen rich than water. What this means is that the lungs can contain fluid and remain functioning. Using PFC or another similar fluid might mean we can dive deeper for longer, but it will require additional equipment. So it’s not really an answer to the creation of the human pseudo fish.

Babies seem to have a natural affinity with water; they love to swim, even as early as 3 months old they are extremely comfortable in and under water. Contrary to popular belief we do not breathe liquid whilst we’re in the womb. During gestation the foetus survives in fluid, but it’s not using its lungs at this point, the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange system is supplied by the mother via the umbilical cord. Once the foetus exits a remarkable process takes place that changes the circulatory system and activates the lungs. So, back to the swimming babies, how does a baby know not to try breath underwater? It uses an instinct known as the mammalian dive reflex, which closes off the epiglottis thus preventing water from entering the lungs, similar to the process that stops us from breathing in our coffee, but one that we learn to override after a year or so in favour of holding our breath.

So what has this got to do with the adaptation of the human for life underwater? Well perhaps the basic functions for underwater breathing are already there. We could stop the change, at birth, from external oxygen access to lung functioning. We replace our present breathing system with a system that uses an external lung to extract the oxygen from the water. The system is housed inside a protective layer of toughened skin with a tubing system to draw in new water, extract the oxygen and then expel the used water; basically we genetically engineer an aqualung and live continuously underwater. Alternatively let’s leave the system as is but add on an extra external system as above for use underwater and we have a system for bimodal breathing. Another system for continuous underwater life might be to genetically change the lungs so that they have a bigger surface area enabling us to extract enough oxygen from water, and then adjust the lining of the lung to use water borne oxygen.

Whichever system we choose to develop we need to create a system to protect us from the pressures of the deep. Perhaps that could be in the form of a strengthened skin that also addresses the problem of skin wrinkling; instead of sebum making our skin waterproof we would have a more efficiently waterproofed skin. After these major issues have been solved the minor stuff like changing the foot and hand structure should be easy. We simply need to target the relevant limb genes and engineer them to be more duck like. And we could create an extra layer for the eyes to protect them; or re-engineer them to function more usefully underwater.

The same process would apply to adaptation to whatever new environment we found ourselves in; identify the changes needed, sort out which genes to change and engineer the changes.
But what if we started out on our long space journey, uncertain of the conditions at our final destination? How would we survive the possibly centuries long journey?


We set out on our journey in search of a new home planet; we’re not entirely sure what the environment will be like once we get there, but we have some ideas about what we’re looking for, we’d like it to be as close as possible to earth’s atmosphere. Our volunteer crew choose their role:

• To be initial crew members those that start the journey, running the ship for the first 200 years. We have of course perfected longevity by this time. This crew have specialist skills and have been genetically modified for that task.

• To be placed in a state of suspended animation awaiting the time when they will be needed as replacement crew.

• As above but available for genetic modification once the new planet has been found and the modification needs identified.

•A bank of frozen embryos will be waiting for the time when the planet has been found. They will be appropriately modified to meet the needs of the new planet.

•Additionally some will be modified for rapid development from child to adult.

All very easy really, when’s the next ship out?


While not immediately obvious, genetic engineering as a fashion tool does have its implications for future human evolution. Let us imagine what would be happening if the technique were available today, how would humankind look? What happens when a particular characteristic becomes unfashionable? Or more alarmingly, what if certain looks or traits become ubiquitous? Studies have shown that looks and intelligence alike (both genetically determined) are directly related to societal success in terms of position, power, and pay. As the ability to choose these ‘successful’ looks becomes readily available and affordable, will we become a homogeneous Orwellian society not only looking alike, but also thinking alike? Would this be bad? How would it affect human evolution in its broadest sense? What influence would this trend (or the potential counter trend) have on the species?

It seems highly likely at this point in time that the use of genetic engineering will progress because of the amount of money that is washing around the industry, unless genetic engineering and biotechnology turn out to be the latest ‘South Sea Bubble’ or ‘ crash’, which is still a possibility. A substantial amount of current research funding comes from governmental departments, particularly in the USA, and with the controversy that surrounds genetic engineering and associated fields this funding and tenuous public support can dry up almost overnight leaving no money and no future market for the product. As well as research grants, institutions are also receiving support from organizations such as the Cancer Research Society. Millions of dollars are also being ploughed into genetic engineering research by the biotechnological industry and to a lesser extent the pharmaceutical industry that see the potential for huge profits as do market analysts and investors.

At present highly profitable beauty and health industries have the market cornered, plastic surgery for enhancement is common practice, for example check the plastic surgeon directory. Creams to stop wrinkles abound on chemists (pharmacists) shelves, anti-aging pills, memory pills, pills to make you more potent. But some companies within the biotechnology field are gearing up to challenge that position. As a race it seems we are desperate to alter ourselves and willing to spend the money doing it, it is not unheard of for people to save for years to pay for surgery to, for example change the much hated nose. The technology for engineering our offspring is getting closer every day, it probably won’t be long before we can give our children a ‘head start’ by deciding which characteristic, features and traits we want for them and the time is also rapidly approaching when we will be able to use genetic engineering to alter ourselves.

The Science

To be able to achieve changes to our appearance scientists are looking at growing, manipulating and altering adult stem cells. These are the cells that are present in the body and get called upon when a repair or renewal job is needed. One method that scientist are currently experimenting with is to create a ‘scaffold’ using polyethylene terephathalene (PET), or Dacron in the desired shape. Onto this they place pre-adipocytes cells, cells that have begun to differentiate into fat cells, and allow them to grow into new tissue. This technique is being seen as having the potential to replace current methods for breast augmentation, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. There is also a significant field of study into the use of stem cells and gene therapy within dentistry. Some of the techniques being tried involve extracting and reprogramming cells to behave as teeth growing cells, but probably closer at hand is the technology for implanting regenerative cells into existing teeth.

The Debate

The first paragraph of this article posed a number of questions:
• what if certain looks or traits become ubiquitous?
• will we become a homogeneous Orwellian society not only looking alike, but thinking alike?
• So is it likely that we will become an Orwellian society, all looking, thinking and behaving the same?

The answer is hopefully and most probably “no”. As a species we exercise individual desire and free will and unless some Machiavellian plot is put in place that deprives all of humanity of the ability to exercise free will, this is unlikely to change.

If we look at the world of now we find that the old adage ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is still true. Across the world definitions of beauty vary extensively according to locally established norms and ideals. Time also changes the idea of beauty: what was desirable 100 years ago is not the same as now. See our page on Physical Attraction for more on the definition of beauty.

Even though the research shows that looks and intelligence influence our access to power, money and position it still doesn’t mean that only one ‘look’ or one kind of intelligence will be the predominate one. Different appearances fit different positions, for example research shows that pretty young women don’t make appealing serious newsreaders, we tend to trust a strong faced, older man in this role. A young handsome man is not seen as experienced or even trustworthy so not much good if you’re trying to sell landlord insurance. What this means is you would need to adjust your looks according to your chosen profession. There will always be those who are willing to spend money and time following the latest trend or ‘improving’ their looks but even now not many people spend the time undergoing plastic surgery to look exactly like their idol or changing their appearance to suit a current style.

For most people the reason they chose to have plastic surgery is that a certain feature is not to their liking. Of course when the techniques outlined above become widely available, safe and reliable it’s hard to predict just how far people would be willing to go in order to keep pace with the latest trends. Changing our appearance to keep up with fashion is unlikely to become as common as changing our wardrobe. Our sense of ourselves and our individuality may override the desire to conform to the requirements of the latest fashion to that extent. And there will probably always be the non-conformists, those who deliberately kick against the trends.

In the end, we believe that the human race is comprised of enough individuals whose greatest desire is to maintain their individuality and to fight for their right to exercise free will. What these emerging technologies probably will do is to make it safer and quicker for people to undergo the procedures that are common now. Instead of implanting a lump of silicon to enhance or replace breasts, the patient’s own cells will be used to grow new fat to the required shape and size. Instead of having a set of false teeth we will have cells implanted into our gums to grow our own new set. The tooth fairy’s job will be to collect our baby teeth and store their stem cells for our later life.

In this article the enhancement of intelligence has not been covered because intelligence is not really a fashion trend, whereas ideas, thoughts and opinions arguably are. Once we start to genetically modify these then we really are on our way to the Orwellian Society model. This makes it a whole area of study in its own right and therefore justifies its inclusion on its own page.

Human Cloning

Cloning is the process of creating a genetically identical duplicate of an organism. A clone is said to be all descendants derived asexually from a single individual. Scientists plan to use somatic cell nuclear transfer for the first human clone, which is the same technique that was used to create Dolly the sheep. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is accomplished when:

1. An egg is taken from a donor and the nucleus removed creating an enucleated egg.
2. A somatic cell (a non-sperm, non-egg cell), which contains DNA, is then taken from the person to   be cloned.
3. The enucleated egg is then fused together with the somatic cell using electricity.
4. This creates an embryo, which is implanted into a surrogate mother through in vitro fertilization.

This process is far from perfect. The removal and re-introduction of the nucleus, the electric stimulation of the cell, and the in vitro fertilization all combine to make viable embryos in only about 1 in 200 attempts. And then, the results are less than predictable. Returning to our previous mention of Dolly, it is important to note that her life span was only about 1/2 that of a normal sheep. Nevertheless, these difficulties will be overcome and human cloning will be a reality within the decade.

How Does Cloning Relate to Future Human Evolution?

Cloning may be a factor in the future of human evolution but will certainly not be its primary driver. We believe it will increase our individual longevity and contribute to healthier, happier lives through organ replacement, and eventually cloning technology will enable the seed ship method for propagating our species throughout the stars. While it may provide other hypothetical benefits such as re-creating brilliant scientists, philosophers, and humanitarians who might then have more than a single life time to contribute to our evolutionary development, advances in direct manipulation of the genome will probably allow us to specify the genetic pattern of those we would want to emulate.

Stem Cells

By the time you finish reading this article quite a lot of the information could well be out of date. The world of Stem Cell research is fast changing and every day there are new developments and new research findings published.

What you read here is as an overview of what is commonly held to be true as of May 2005, a month in which major advancements in the field have been announced.

This month a team of scientists from Seoul National University in South Korea led by Professor Woo Suk Hwang published a paper about their latest trails using human embryonic stem cells. The team took skin cells from patients with specific diseases, which they then transplanted into donated eggs that had had their own genetic material removed. The eggs where then grown to an early stage at which time the stem cells where removed and found to match the DNA of the cell donor, making them ‘patient specific stem cells’.

This announcement has caused huge ripples around the world not least in the USA where President Bush immediately reacted by proclaiming he would veto pending legislation if it allowed for stem cell research using embryonic stem cells. On May 23 2005 the legislation that concerned Bush was approved by the House of Representatives. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First lets look at some of the basics.

What are stems cells?

There are a number of different kinds of stem cells. After sperm fertilises an egg a single celled zygote is formed. This cell is a Totipotent stem cell which means that it can become any kind of human cell. This includes the cells needed for the formation of the placenta, the formation of the embryo and the development of all other foetal tissue and organs. Totipotent stem cells divide to make more totipotent stem cells which can themselves become foetuses; which is where identical twins come from.

4 days after the formation of the zygote the totipotent stem cells stop dividing and begin to form the Blastocyst. A Blastocyst is a mass of cells consisting of three parts; an outer layer of stem cells called the trophoblast or trophectoderm, which form the cells of the placenta and other tissue needed to support the foetus, a hollow area and Inner Mass stem cells which form the cells that become the foetus. These stem cells are Pluripotent meaning they can become almost any kind of cell. Inner Mass stem cells are not totipotent because they cannot make trophoblast cells but they can make any other kind of human tissue cell.

The Pluripotent stem cells of the Inner mass then begin to specialize into Multipotent stem cells which can become different kinds of cell depending on their specialism, for example blood stem cells can become red or white blood cells or platelets. This process is known as stem cell differentiation

Multipotent stem cells are also found in the formed human and are commonly known as Adult Stem Cells. Whereas the role of pre-birth multipotent stem cells is to form, build and develop the new human, the role of the adult stem cell is one of repair and renewal.

Adult stem cells are known to exist in a several areas of the bodies organs and tissues. Some of the earliest stem cells to be discovered, in the 1960’s, were those in bone marrow. Bone marrow contains at least two types of stem cell, those for the formation of blood related cells and those for the formation of bone, cartilage, fat, and fibrous connective tissue.

The body is known to hold stocks of stem cells in various other places including; the brain, the skin, skeletal muscle and liver.

Until relatively recently, it was thought that multipotent stem cells were only capable of differentiating into cells for use within their specialism. The stem cells multipotency had led scientist to believe that this meant that stem cells which live in a specific place could only differentiate into cells related to that organ or tissue; it seems that this may not be true. Recent experimentation suggests that certain adult stem cells may be pluripotent and capable of Transdifferentiation, the ability to differentiate into other cell types outside of their specialism. It has been shown that already differentiated cells can transdifferentiate and more particularly can be induced to transdifferentiate. Whilst some evidence seems to exist for transdifferentiation there is a big debate regarding how exactly it happens, some scientists have suggested that a process occurs that gives the appearance of transdifferentiation. At this time there is no accepted conclusive proof either way.

Finally stem cells are found in one other place, the umbilical cord. These stem cells are also multipotent and more specifically only make blood cells.

Life cycle of a cell:

While we bear in mind the debate about transdifferentiation and the nature of adult stem cells, certain aspects of stem cell morphology are held to be true. This is a basic overview of these ‘knows’.

From Stem to Death.

Stem cells sit around in the zygote, embryo, fetus or the birthed human, dividing. The division of stem cells into new stem cells is known as self-renewal, the division of a stem cell into a new, specialist cell is known as differentiation. The stem cells are waiting for a signal to start to differentiate. Differentiation is the process of becoming a specialist cell.

The stem cell receives the signal telling it to turn on certain genes and make the required proteins. Part of this process is the continuing division of the cell. The differentiation process is complete once the cell stops dividing. It is now a specialist cell. This cell then makes its way to the required spot where it continues to function until death. The point of death varies from cell type to cell type

Different kinds of stem cells:

Type Behaviour Found In
Early Embryonic Totipotent Zygote
Blastocyst Embryonic Pluripotent Inner Mass of Blastocyst
Fetal Pluripotent Fetus
Umbilical Cord Multipotent Umbilical Cord
Adult Multipotent Babies, Infants, Children, Adults

Scientists mainly use two types of stem cells, blastocyst embryonic and adult which they obtain from either animals or humans. In the main scientist steer clear of using totipotent embryonic stem cells because of the controversy caused by their use. A totipotent stem cell has the total ability to become a human, i.e. it cannot only make the tissue required for human life but also the tissue necessary for the placenta. As the embryo develops the stem cells become less pluripotent so fetal stem cells are less versatile. Umbilical cord stem cells have so far only been found to hold blood stem cells. Adult stem cells were thought to have formed their specialism and therefore only be able to produce cells that fit the specialism; evidence is beginning to suggest that this may not be so. And let’s not forget the transdifferentiation experimentation here.

The Variety of Life:

There are a lot of different kinds of cells that go to make up the body. The different kinds of cells have hugely differing life cycles.

Two examples:

Skin Cells

The Skin needs Keratinocyte cells for repair and renewal. The stem cells receive the signal to start to differentiate into a Keratinocyte cell deep within the skin layers. As it differentiates it moves towards the surface of the skin. Before the cell reaches the surface it loses it nucleus and dies. As a dead cell on the outer layer its job is to protect the living cells underneath until it finally flakes off to become dust. As you can see this process requires a lot of stem cells to be available for differentiation as the skin is continuously repairing and renewing itself.

Nerve Cells

Nerve cells come in two basic forms, Neurons and Glia. Neurons transmit information and are supported by the glia cells. They are mostly created during the embryonic and foetal stages ergo they are from embryonic or foetal stem cells. When a stem cell starts to differentiate for use within the nervous system it can do one of three things; it can self-renew, it can become an astrocyte, a type of glia cell, or it will produce neurons oroligodendrocytes. By the time we are born most of our neural stem cell activity has finished. As children we probably grow a few more neurons that are used to create neural circuits. The jury is still out on how much activity happens after birth, there is evidence to suggest that the brain can and does make new neural cells from adult stem cells. The death of a neural cell is infrequent and happens after a long and active life.

Why do scientists like stem cells?

Stem cells are some of the most interesting cells in the human makeup. They possess three key features that make them eminently useful and fascinating for scientists.

1. Stem cells are cells that have yet to have their specific role in the formation of tissue determined.

2. Stem cells can become almost any other kind of cell. They are waiting for a signal that will tell them what kind of tissue cell to become.

3. Stem cells have the ability to divide – proliferate over long periods of time.

The pluripotent nature of embryonic stem cells – the ability to become almost any other kind of cell makes it one of the favourites with scientist. Also embryonic stem cells are more easily grown in the laboratory and are generally more abundant. But this is the stem cell that causes most controversy. The argument is fundamentally about when human life begins; at birth or at conception, and the right to life. Using adult stem cells is basically uncontroversial but at present adult stem cells is seen as less versatile; they are rarer and they proliferate less readily.

How are stem cells grown?

Embryonic Stem Cells

Firstly the scientist needs to have a blastocyst from which to extract the Inner Mass Stem Cells. The Inner cell mass is then transferred into a plastic dish that has been coated with, most commonly, mouse embryonic skin cells and contains a soup of nutrients and growth factors. These initial stem cells divide over a period of a few days to fill the dish. Once the dish is full the stem cells are removed from the dish and transferred into new dishes where they continue to divide. This process is repeated for about six months. After 6 months the initial batch of 30 stem cells has become several million. These cells are all still pluripotent. During this six month process periodic tests are made to ensure that the stem cells are still healthy, genetically normal and have not started to differentiate.

If the batch passes the entire test then it can be called an embryonic stem cell line. There is no accepted standard for these test and scientist admit that the tests do not in fact give a clear indication of the stem cell lines fundamental properties and functions.

The scientists keep the stem cell lines from spontaneously differentiating by controlling the conditions under which the stem cells are grown. When they need to start the differentiation the conditions are changed. To produce a stem cell line for the creation of specific types of cell the scientist adjusts the chemical composition of the culture or the surface medium or inserts some specific genes. At present this process is not that reliable.

Adult Stem Cells

Adult stem cells are already specialists, but specialist waiting for their signal to start to work – differentiate. There are some important aspects of adult stem cells that need to be borne in mind; they do not exist in large quantities and they do not divide until they are activated by disease or injury and are required for a repair or renewal job.

The biggest challenge to scientist in the field of adult stem cell research has been how exactly to produce enough adult stem cells to make it viable as a therapeutic option. So far there has been limited success in the field of stem cell proliferation and control. A regular check on the news will show monthly if not weekly hopeful articles describing ‘promising’ new discoveries.

What do scientists want to do with stem cells?

Disease Elimination and Cure

Most of the more lethal diseases such as cancer are caused by faulty cell differentiation and division, as are birth defects. If scientist can understand, unravel and control the complex processes of differentiation it will be a huge step towards finding ways to eliminate and cure such diseases, birth defects and genetic disorders.

Drug Testing

Rather than rely on animals for testing new drugs and therapies scientist are attempting to create stem cells line that can be used to produce cells for testing drugs and therapies. Cancer cell lines are already used to test anti-tumour drugs. To be able to test drugs on different kinds of tissue requires the scientist to be able to produce consistent stem cell lines and have them differentiate to exactly match so that each drug type has ‘level playing field’ for comparison.

Tissue and Organ Replacement and Renewal

Experimentation has shown that it may be possible to use stem cells to create new cells that can be used to repair damaged tissue or even eventually to grow new organs. Some of the injuries and diseases that scientists are concentrating on are; Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The idea is that healthy cells are generated in the laboratory and then transplanted into the patient where they will replace and renew the damaged tissue.

Future human evolution

It is highly likely that stem cell research will be a major player in the future. The possibilities for the manipulation of the human form, making the adjustments that might prove necessary, are likely to be achieved using stem cell engineering. Taking stem cells and manipulating them for alternative cell production could hold possibilities for changing organ or tissue function. Growing genetically manipulated organs could also be a possibility. Who knows what kind of new organ might be feasible this way?

Issues and ethics

This article scratches only the very surface of the subject of stem cell research. There are many hurdles for the scientists to overcome and many ethical issues to be debated and resolved. These issues are discussed more fully in other sections of this site.

If you would like more in depth information on the subject of stem cells a good starting point is the National Institutes of Health (USA) stem cell site.

Stem Cell Ethics and Controversy

Issue’s and controversy

Stem Cell research is a highly controversial and emotive subject that is, more often that not, misunderstood, misrepresented and fraught with ‘ifs and buts’. There are fears that science is moving too fast without giving proper consideration to potential impacts and to ethical concerns. The subject is a confusing and complex one that is difficult to grasp and constantly changing. Governments around the world struggle to develop policies and guidelines at the same time as individuals struggle with their conscience and beliefs.

There are two key areas of debate:

The scientific debate; what is proven, what is debatably proven, research results that are received with scepticism.

The ethical/moral debate; some people base their objections on religious beliefs, some on ethical grounds, others believe simply, that changing or ‘messing with’ the human genome is simply not right, against nature and a highly dangerous path to follow. Others harbour concerns about the directions in which stem cell research can be taken.

Significantly much of the debate is held at an emotional level with scientific facts often overlooked or conveniently ignored. So with that in mind let’s first look at the issues that are currently facing scientist in the field.

Exciting claims are regularly reported by scientists with their findings published in reputable science journals with all the relevant data and background information, the media, picking up on these stories, repackages the findings for public consumption and dutifully supplies the splash headline:

Brain stem cells to cure diabetes
Giant leap for the ‘secret of long life

Unfortunately the fine detail is the thing that is often lost leading to much misconception, once you get to the small print you discover that all is not as it seems. Sentences like ‘hold much promise’, ‘seems to suggest’, ‘has the exciting potential to be’, ‘it is reasonable to assume’ abound in reports of advances in genetic engineering and stem cell research.

What are some of the scientific hurdles still to be overcome?

As rapidly as the field of stem cell research is developing new questions and problems arise, with each new discovery another set of problems seems to arrive. Scientists really don’t fully understand why embryonic stem cells can proliferate successfully in the laboratory without differentiating but adult stem cells are not so easily controlled or proliferated. As yet there is no reliable and reproducible way to create stem cell lines. For experimentation to continue successfully it is essential that results can be reproduced repeatedly, at present this simply doesn’t happen. Scientists have yet to agree a set of test to confirm that the fundamental properties of a stem cell exist in a set of laboratory stem cells. Even the tests that are used are not wholly reliable and accurate.

In actuality scientists don’t really know exactly how the process of stem cell differentiation takes place, whether the stem cell be embryonic or adult. Differentiation occurs when a stem cell becomes a specific cell type, this happens when the stem cell receives signals telling it to start to become a cell. Scientists barely know what those signals are and how they affect the process. Directing the differentiation of stem cells has developed over the years but is still not a wholly exact science. It seems likely the process relies on a series of complex interactions. Controlling the differentiation is proving to be a major difficulty, how to make a stem cell become the exact cell type you want is not so easy and certainly not reliably reproducible in all areas.

Scientists simply don’t know how many different types of adult stem cells exist and where they exist. They also don’t know how adult stem cells come to exist or how they know where to go to do their repair and replacement functions. The question of just how flexible different adult stem cell types are is still unknown. Some scientist claim that adult stem cells can differentiate into many kinds of cells outside of their specialism, others argue that this is a fluke of the laboratory.

One of the major goals for scientists is to develop a way to use stem cells to repair damaged tissue. To do this they require a large amount of cells. Embryonic stem cells are the easiest to proliferate but are not a genetic match for the patient, adult stem cells are a match but are not easy to grow or control in large numbers. The recent announcement from Seoul University is being seen as a major step forward in this area.

There are many other problems that face the scientists; the laboratory process requires the use of some animal products that leave residue, how long a laboratory created cell survives in a human is an unknown. There has been significant progress in the field but there are still many unanswered questions.

The ethical debate

The biggest problem with the ethical debate is that the potential for stem cell research to produce cures for some of the worlds most deadly and debilitating diseases is pitted against fervently and deeply held moral and faith based beliefs.

The issue that gets the most attention and is often the focus for opponents of stem cell research is the use of embryonic stem cells. This is because during the process of stem cell line creation the embryo is destroyed, opponents argue that this is the taking of human life – murder. Opponents argue that, as every embryo has the potential to become a human being that each and every one is sacrosanct. Proponents argue that even under natural conditions not all embryos go on to form a baby, that unused harvested embryos would anyway be destroyed and that, ultimately the ends justify the means. Many opponents of embryonic stem cell research put forward compelling arguments for more vigorous experimentation and research into the use of Adult stem cells. They see this as an answer to the dilemma of the potential for disease relief. In reality this debate is quite clear cut, either you believe that embryonic stem cell research is fundamentally wrong because it destroys a potential human or you believe embryonic stem cell research is acceptable because the embryo will never become a human even if it has the potential to do so.

But this argument is merely a very vocal, media fed argument that only scratches at the surface of far deeper and potentially more impactful debates. There are big questions regarding the potential directions in which stem cell research can be taken; designer babies and eugenics, cloning, chimera. What of the rights of the women who donate their eggs for research and just how much attention is being paid to the health risks? What are the potential impacts of research on the future?


A chimera is an organism constructed out of living parts from more than one biological species. Many scientists see the creation of chimera as a useful tool for the observation of stem cell behaviour. The use of chimera is seen as a way to overcome some of the hurdles outlined above. Basically it allows the scientist to test what happens when stem cells are introduced into a patient, without experimenting on humans. For experimentation purposes what happens is that human stem cells are implanted into an animal host, either an animal embryo or an adult animal. Most commonly used are mice and monkeys. Some of the experiments that have been done already involve implanting brain cells and creating mice with entire human immune systems. It is also worth noting that this is not an entirely new idea and that human-animal chimera also exist in the form of animal tissue implanted into humans; pig heart valves are commonly used as replacement organs for people with heart disease. The extent to which the implanted human stem cells affect the host animal is dependent on the stage at which the material is introduced. If the human stem cells are introduced into an early stage animal embryo then they have a much more profound effect because the stem cells of the host are less differentiated. If the stem cells are introduced into an adult animal the effect, in theory is much less profound because much less differentiation is taking place so the stem cells are more of an addition. But just how far should we go with the use of chimera? Where the boundaries should be drawn? When does the ‘yuck’ factor kick in?

The Ethics

The ‘yuck factor’ is the point at which our reaction to a piece of information or something we see makes us squirm. If we see a monkey running around a cage, we’re unlikely to squirm even if we know that a percentage of that monkey’s brain is made up of human cells. But what if we saw a sheep with human feet? Although there is no proof that this has happened, it is theoretically possible. In fact there are a lot of theoretically possible outcomes of chimerical experimentation and many of them may not be so evident to the naked eye. It is the mixing of animal and human cells that concerns the ethicists that have bothered to notice this element of stem cell research. For example how human would a monkey with 20% human cells be, is it human or monkey? Some might say that 20% human cells does not make a monkey human but where is the line to be drawn? These are some of the issues that the bioethicists are fighting with.


There are two basic types of cloning Reproductive cloning and Research cloning. Reproductive cloning means to recreate a genetic duplicate of a human being and in itself raise a great many ethical issues; therefore it is dealt with separate. Research cloning is the use of cloning techniques to create an embryo for research purposes only.

The technique can be used to produce stem cells for research. The technique used is called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer: SCNT, what happens is that nucleus from a body cell is transplant into an egg. Using electricity or chemicals this entity is triggered into producing an embryo. The resulting embryo can then be used to obtain embryonic stem cells. This process is also known as embryo cloning or therapeutic cloning. Some of the uses for this technique include producing patient specific stem cells; the genetic material of the patient is implanted into a donor egg thus producing stem cells that are a genetic match for the patient. These stem cells could then be used for therapeutic cell transplant. Another proposed use is that stem cells could be created with genetic disorders allowing research of that disorder to be carried out. There are however a few scientific problems; the cost of therapeutic patient specific cell production may make it a non-starter or at least only available to the very rich; the very specific nature of the cells means that they can only be given to the patient they were grown for, unlike conventional drugs which can be given to almost anyone. Even though recent research has improved the efficiency of cell line production it still takes a lot of time and eggs to produce very few usable lines. Also let’s be clear the technique is still only useful for research purposes and there are many hurdles to be overcome before any real human use is possible.

The Ethics

Let’s not forget that cloning in itself uses human embryos whether created using the in vitro fertilization method or using donated eggs, so already we have the ethical difficulties previously outlined. But there are yet more ethical problems arising out of cloning cells. There are fears that research cloning will open the door to human cloning. With the proliferation of cloned embryos the chances of a few hundred embryos going astray becomes more possible. One of the major concerns is the treatment of the women who donate their eggs. How informed is the consent they give?

Whichever method is used to obtain stem cells at some point or other an egg is needed. Adult stem cells are near to impossible to proliferate outside of an egg; embryonic stem cells are taken from an embryo. So a donor is needed; enter the women. Eggs are often donated by women who seek fertility treatment; they give their spare eggs to science. Some women are paid to produce eggs for research. As far as it is know all women give ‘informed’ consent for the eggs to be taken. But there are big questions being asked as to exactly how informed that consent actually is.

Cloning and stem cell production requires an enormous amount of eggs. Initial attempts at cloning needed 242 eggs to produce a single usable embryonic line, since then that figure has been reduced to 20 eggs for one embryonic line. During a normal cycle a woman produces just one egg so inevitably women are treated with drugs to stimulate multiple egg production. The process requires a two stage drug programme, firstly to shut down the ovaries and then to stimulate them to produce the eggs. A woman treated with drugs to stimulate multiple egg production can produce about 10 eggs.

The Ethics

At its simplest the procedure for egg extraction is painful and invasive. However the drugs used to stimulate multiple egg production can produce serious health risks. Whilst most women suffer only minor symptoms such as headaches or nausea some can develop much serious problems such as severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can lead to dangerous fluid build-up, clotting disorders, renal failure, infertility and even death. One drug that is used in the procedure is called Lupron (leuprolide acetate) a drug that is not approved or tested for this purpose, although it is being legally used because it is approved for other purposes. Lupron has caused many problems which have been reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) including chest pain, nausea, depression, emotional instability, loss of libido (sex drive), amblyopia (dimness of vision), syncope (fainting), asthenia (weakness), asthenia gravis hypophyseogenea (severe weakness due to loss of pituitary function), amnesia (disturbance in memory), hypertension (high arterial blood pressure).

A woman who donates spare eggs from fertility treatment has a clear motive for wanting to undertake such a procedure, she wants a baby. However those choosing to voluntarily donate eggs will have different motivations; possibly they believe they are helping to find ways to cure disease, but how many realise just how far into the future those cures are? Maybe they are doing it for the money, though laws exist preventing excessive payments in some countries, in other poorer countries that money can be more than useful, but how aware are the women of the risks they are taking?

Eugenics and designer babies

There are issues associated with the connections between stem cell research, eugenics and designer babies. It is within the area of stem cell research that information will be found that will enable scientists to pursue eugenics, the betterment of humanity and the ability for parents to choose not only the sex but also physical and character traits of their offspring, designer babies. Because these are such big issues they are covered elsewhere on this site.

The Human Brain

The brain is a pretty complex piece of equipment; it has lobes, and neurotransmitters and synapses and grey matter and all kinds of other stuff, but most importantly for us cells and stem cells.

In this article we will look at what the future might hold for our brain in the context of genetic engineering and related technology. What might we be able to do in the future to alter the way our brain functions in the control of our actions, responses, attitudes, skills, talents and intelligence? Why might we even want to do such a thing? What does it mean for future human evolution?

As a quick introduction here is a quote from The Brain Series – Early Brain Development and Learning by Kenneth Wesson.
During embryogenesis (the process by which an embryo is converted from a fertilized cell to a full-term foetus), brain cells develop at the astounding rate of over 250,000 per minute. There are several points during the process of neurogenesis (the production of brain cells) where over 50,000 brain cells are formed every second. By the twentieth week of foetal life, over 200 billion neurons have been created.

The reason this quote is offered is to give some idea of the hugely complex process that goes into even the initial forming of the brain. Once we’re born the brain continues to grow and develop.

Again from Human Nature – Early Brain Development and Learning

A fine-tuning of a child’s emerging talents occurs between three and six years of age. At approximately age five or six, the brain has reached 90-95% of its adult volume and is four times its birth size. Age’s three to six are the years during which extensive internal re-wiring takes place in the frontal lobes, the cortical regions involved in organizing actions, planning activities and focusing attention.

In addition to being genetically programmed, brain growth and development are also immensely influenced by neural plasticity. The brain constantly modifies the connections among its one trillion brain cells that are consistently impacted by incidents processed consciously and unconsciously by the brain. When new learning occurs, there is a neurophysiological correlate that is created to represent one’s newly attained knowledge. The unfolding events that one encounters largely determine how much cortical growth will take place, in what regions that growth will take place, when, if, and where subsequent development will occur (or not) in his blossoming young brain. The very architecture of each human brain is altered as a result of all newly acquired skills and competencies. By the process of neural plasticity (the brain’s ability to undergo physical, chemical, and structural changes as it responds to experiences and to one’s environment) the number and density of these functional neural pathways will be determined by the learning experiences one encounters.

Precisely how much of our ‘self’ is genetically determined and how much environmentally influenced is still a matter of conjecture, scientist have found evidence of genetic connections to a number of aspects of human behaviour and traits. However it is far from a simple case of a gene that determines whether we are, for example bad tempered or mellow. The evidence so far points to complex interactions between large numbers of genes that influence each other and play small roles in creating several variances of a trait. It is generally agreed that environment also plays a major part in personality and trait formation, working in conjunction with genes. It would appear that a combination of both goes into making us the person we are; our talents, our personality, our likes and dislikes, even our attitudes. There is scientific evidence for genetic components to all of these elements of our ‘self’ but exactly how it all works together to make us into ‘us’ is not known.

That being said it is entirely imaginable that eventually we will be able to have an influence over our brains using genetic engineering technologies. It is wholly conceivable that we might wish to enhance certain talents, seek to eliminate anti-social or criminal behaviour, change certain aspects of our personality, and increase our intelligence. Of course these things are not without controversy and debate.

Firstly let’s look at some of the current technologies that may well be employed in the future to genetically alter the brain. This is a speculative exercise, only intended to give an overview of some of the possibilities and does not cover any of the additional controversy that is inherent with all of these techniques.

Adult Stem Cell Manipulation

We all have a number of neural stem cells. These are cells that are waiting to perform repair and renewal functions within the brain. They are multi-potent stem cells, which mean they have the capacity to become a number of different cells. It’s is conceivable that this cells could be harvested from a ‘patient’ manipulated or enhanced, allowed to partially differentiate and then reintroduced into the patient to effect change.

The most likely method for making alterations to the adult is changing personality, talent, behaviour, a technique that has already been flagged as having the potential to effect change. A new gene is added to a cell by using a vector such as a virus. The vector carries the gene to the targeted cell; this could mean an intelligence enhancing gene is introduced to brain cells. If somatic or body cells are targeted then the alteration is for that individual only and does not get passed on to any offspring. However another similar technique known as Gene Therapy or Germline therapy can be used to target germ cells which would cause the change to become inheritable.

Pre-Implantation Diagnosis – PGD
PGD is a method that is currently used for selection rather than alteration. Once the desired gene has been identified, embryos would be tested for the presence of that gene, once found the ‘correct’ embryo/s would be implanted into the mother and brought to term.

Pre-Implantation Gene Manipulation
Using a combination of PGD and Germline Therapy an embryo is taken and new genetic material is introduced. The embryo is then returned to the mother and brought to term.

The Who and Why

In ‘the science’ we covered the how and what. Now about the who and why, who gets to make the choices about changing the brains function and why might the choices be made.

There are three possibilities for the who; a personal choice – we choose to make a change to ourselves, enforced – a choice is made for us by a third party, parental choice – our parents decide before we’re born.

Personal Choice:

In the beginning of this article we looked at the formation of the brain, the connections that are made and the ways in which our talents, particularly, are formed. In our early years are brain makes connections – synapses between neurons, these synapses are formed rapidly whilst we’re young but as we grow and begin to focus on specific areas unused or un-stimulated synapses die off. It is this process that creates our talents. But let’s say that we’re simply not happy with the twists and turns that we’re made during our formative years, perhaps we really would prefer to have a talent for music than to be mathematically able. It is conceivable that we could go in for a little synapse enhancement; maybe re-stimulate some of those neural pathways that died off in our early years. It is hard to see this being a particularly controversial issue; we are making a personal choice as an adult, a choice made with free will and full awareness of the consequences. But what if certain traits became requisite? What if certain traits become socially unacceptable? Would we, as a society with a tendency to need to conform, feel pressured into manipulating ourselves into the ‘perfect human being’, after all the majority of people seem to go out of their way to be ‘loved’, we all want to be liked. How long would we be able to tolerate the potential ostracisation of not ‘fitting in’? Would class oppression become redefined as those who have been engineered and those who have not?

Third Party Enforced:

Here we start to get onto some really sticky ground. The possibility for enforced genetic alteration of the brain starts to raise thoughts of Nazi’s and Eugenics. We have to ask questions about who makes decisions about desirable and undesirable behaviour, characteristics and traits. Line drawing needs to be done, but who will draw those lines? We will need to absolutely clear in our understanding, as a global society as to what is genetic determined and what is environmentally influenced. Let’s create an imaginary scenario.

Perhaps the most desirable alteration might be to eliminate criminal behaviour. It seems on the surface and easy choice to make as an example, but is it so clear cut? Firstly we need to define what constitutes criminal behaviour, still seems simple. Most societies have reasonably clear laws that make those definitions for us. So we accept the law as it stands; in this scenario we have a mass murderer, the crime has been admitted, all the evidence is in and yep we caught the right person. Not too much argument there, this is a crime, this is anti-social behaviour. We now proceed to punishment; the options now include brain reprogramming, sound good? Okay let’s go one step further.

Let’s examine the case of a homeless shelter for young people; the stories are myriad and the backgrounds varied for each individual. Their position once homeless is nearly always the same; accessing income becomes difficult, claiming state benefits becomes difficult, getting or holding down a job is near to impossible. Many find themselves resorting to theft or begging simply to feed themselves. Here is our homeless youth caught stealing food; many may find it hard to condemn someone who steals food because they are hungry, while others may argue theft is theft. So where is the line drawn? From the perspective that society is at fault, perhaps the state could force the mass genetic alteration to enhance compassion and reduce the numbers of us that have judgemental natures. From a different angle, imagine that the gene combination that makes a person likely to commit a crime becomes known. How that criminal behaviour is likely to manifest itself is not known and not predictable, but we can now test each newborn for the genetic markers and predisposition – what next? Do we gene test all new born? Do we enforce a genetic alteration on all children found to have that specific gene marker? What happens to the presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty? Here perhaps we have gone as far as to say guilty without committing a crime, guilty of having the potential to commit a crime. Also, if we eliminate the potentially harmful combination, might we have also eliminated some necessary human ingredient necessary for our long-term survival as a species? Perhaps most importantly is establishing what role environmental factors play in the acting on a genetic tendency to anti-social or criminal behaviour. Current science doesn’t actually know but it is suggested that environment has a much bigger influence than genes.

Parental Choice

We now enter the world of the designer baby. Parents want to give their child the best possible start in life. Parents want the best for their children; they want them to have the best chance at success. The child could be enhanced to have the characteristics that the parent decides are essential or to have enhanced intelligence, but what constitute intelligence and how do we decide on a talent? We talked about talents in the section on personal choice so here let’s look at intelligence. Traditionally intelligence has been thought of as uni-linear concept general ‘g’ intelligence measurable using such techniques as IQ testing, in fact Francis Galton, often cited as an early eugenicists is one of the first to look at intelligence as a measurable entity. Howard offered an alternative to IQ testing and a ‘g’ concept of intelligence in 1983 when he published his book ‘Frames of Mind: Theory of multiple intelligences’ and introduced the concept of multi-intelligence types. Gardener asserted that there are seven forms of intelligence: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition), and interpersonal (e.g., social skills). So what is it exactly we would seek to enhance in our child? How do we measure success? What exactly do we mean when we talk about a successful life? Once we can answer this question satisfactorily we can start to decide the route that our designer baby might take.

Scientists are finding genetic links to many behaviours, personality, talents and aspects of neurological formations all the time. The arguments are far from over and far from clear. Things we don’t know far outweigh what we do. Is there potential for positive use of such techniques? Probably yes. In the end it comes down to how we as members of our societies choose to go forward with the use of such technology. If we leave it to governments and money to decide then we are probably in for a fairly dire future. If we take the decision making process seriously and exert some influence then we can contribute to the positive and acceptable use of technology.


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