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China’s CRISPR twins might be the first enhanced humans when it comes to brain power

China’s CRISPR twins might be the first enhanced humans when it comes to brain power
[Photo: Louis Reed/Unsplash]

Lulu and Nana, the Chinese twins born last year, had their genetic code altered in hopes it would make them immune to acquiring HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The move caused controversy around the world over the secrecy of the project and the unknown long-term effects it could have on the twins.

It now appears that it’s possible one of those effects will be enhanced memory and cognition for Lulu and Nana. That’s because Chinese biophysics researcher Dr. Jiankui He used CRISPR gene editing technology to remove the CCR5 gene from the twin’s DNA. This gene is needed by the HIV virus to enter a human blood cell.

However, new research also shows the deletion of the CCR5 gene in mice makes them smarter but has also been shown to improve human brain recovery after stroke. 

There’s no evidence to suggest that He set out to make the first biologically enhanced humans when it comes to cognition, but as Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at UCLA, explained to MIT Technology Review, that’s almost certainly what happened regardless of He’s intent:

“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains. The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”

So where do we go from here? It will be years before anyone can confirm if He inadvertently created the first metahumans with increased brain power. But if he did, it’s possible some countries like China could embrace similar human engineering techniques to cognitively enhance all the babies born in the country. This, in turn, could set off an arms race between nations that leads down a path to biologically enhanced humans becoming the norm.

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