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Scientists create a genetically engineered 'smart mouse'

September 1, 1999
Web posted at: 2:26 p.m. EDT (1826 GMT)

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PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Can intelligence and memory be genetically enhanced? Princeton University scientists say the answer is yes, at least in mice.

Research published in this week's edition of the journal Nature suggests similar processes may one day be used to boost human intelligence and memory, though such applications are still far from reality.

Princeton neurobiologist Joe Tsien and colleagues genetically engineered a single gene into a strain of mice they then named "Doogie" -- after the child genius doctor from the television show "Doogie Howser, MD."

"This points to the possibility that enhancement of learning and memory or even IQ is feasible through genetic means, through genetic engineering," said Tsien.

The gene in question, called NR2B, controls the production of a brain chemical called NMDA, a neurotransmitter that has been identified in previous studies as a key player in learning and memory.

The Princeton researchers found that when they inserted the NR2B gene into the mice, the animals produced more than the usual amount of NMDA.

So they were primed to be superlearners -- all that was left to do was to find out if they really were better learners than regular mice.

In tests, the "Doogie" mice significantly outperformed genetically unmodified mice in such tasks as running mazes, recognizing objects in their environment, and solving such problems as how to get themselves out of a pool of water and up onto a pedestal.

Researchers say their findings suggest that, one day, gene therapy could be used to enhance human intelligence or memory. A gene that corresponds to NR2B has been identified in humans, but exactly how it functions in the human brain is not well understood.

The scientists caution that designing a drug or genetic therapy for humans based on the Princeton research would take many years of development and testing and even then would be ethically questionable.



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