Scientist that edited babies' genes probably gave them a brain boost too: Study

The edited gene doesn't just affect HIV susceptibility, but also recovery after strokes & cognition.

When the now-famous Chinese scientist He Jiankui modified the DNA of human embryos and ultimately helped bring three genetically-modified human babies into the world, his intentions were (reportedly) to make them immune to HIV.

However, researchers familiar with the nuances of gene editing and CRISPR, the technology used by Jiankui believe that the 'targetted' changes he made may have consequences that are unpredictable.

The CCR5 gene that Jiankui modified to give the babies immunity to HIV has a primary role in HIV susceptibility. However, a new study published in the journal Cell this week shows that it also has effects on the brain in mice. Specifically, the mice that had their genes tweaked performed a lot better in cognitive tests.

The gene is also linked with how people recover after a stroke, apart from the fact that it could boost the children's academic success later in life, a report in the MIT Technology Review said. This essentially means that the first humans with a genetically-enhanced advantage to their cognition and memory could already be among us.

Did editing the CCR5 gene have the same effects in the babies from Jiankui's experiment?

"The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains," Alcino Silva, one of the neuroscientists in the study from University of California, told MIT Tech.

"The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins."

Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have helped make the worlds first genetically edited babies: twin girls whose DNA he said he altered to remove HIV. AP

Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have helped make the worlds first genetically edited babies: twin girls whose DNA he said he altered to making them HIV resistant. AP

Multiple experts in genetics and ethics voiced their protest against Jiankui's (illegal) actions after news of his study first broke in December 2018. He was later sacked from his research position at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China for having conducted his experiments without the necessary approvals and permissions.

Silva sides with other experts that believe Jiankui shouldn't have conducted the study at all. This, because there's currently no way to predict the effects it can have on the children when they grow older.

"Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population? I would not be a scientist if I said no," Silva told MIT Tech.

"The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes. But mice are not people. We simply don’t know what the consequences will be in mucking around. We are not ready for it yet."

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