Archive for » August, 2013 «

GENES AND THE MIND

It’s an intimate relationship: that between brain and mind. Cut off a relevant part of the brain and operations of the mind change. Change your mind and the wiring and circuits of a relevant part of the brain change.

The world’s awe at feats of the mind is shifting towards the intricacies of the brain and away from the wonders of the human spirit underlying thought and feeling. News of a breakthrough in unraveling a specific brain mechanism causing some disease is almost daily fare. We move slowly towards attributing everything that we are to brain and not to ‘ourselves’.

We are how our brains are constructed and we shall improve (or worsen) ourselves by fiddling with the workings of the brain.

I suspect there is concurrently a quiet shift, as well, in how we see the brain: towards considering it, and mind, as more the product of our genes than of our environment (or other things over which we have control). We learn about promising new studies with potential to improve this aspect of human functioning or that, by re-designing our genes. We conclude, as a result of the unconscious accumulation of such speculation, that genes are us.

 

 

 

Mental illness, that vague and ephemeral thing,  surrenders its secrets as technology peers ever more carefully at the precise spot on a chromosome. A given gene or allele, we now think, is what to toy with to improve mankind’s intelligence. The trend is clear and unstoppable.

(Who’d want to stop our march to the genetically engineered dreamland anyway?)

If we are indeed moving towards seeing ourselves as our genes, is the shift happening more as a natural result of the accumulating scientific findings or of deliberate manipulation of our collective opinion? Are there powerful forces that want all of us to seek solutions to mankind’s ills in genetic defects rather than through social or economic measures? Many of us are aware that various interest groups manipulate universally shared beliefs and feelings. Trades in tobacco, pharmaceuticals or fossil fuels ensure the public is kept in the comfort zone as regards untoward effects of their products. But who’d want to make us overestimate the influence of genetics on our various ills (and wells)?

Deliberate or unwitting skewing of perceptions is clear in how a recent study reports its findings. It looks at genetic contributors to educational attainment. We are informed that associations of three single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are significantly associated with educational attainment (Science 21 June 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6139 pp. 1467-1471 DOI: 10.1126/science.1235488). The authors suggest that ‘Genes in the region of the loci have previously been associated with health, cognitive, and central nervous system phenotypes, and bioinformatics analyses suggest the involvement of the anterior caudate nucleus. These findings provide promising candidate SNPs for follow-up work, and our effect size estimates can anchor power analyses in social-science genetics.’

We’d be excused for thinking that more intelligent kids will eventually be created by snipping the right genes.

 

 

 

 

 

What is unlikely to be noticed amidst the jargon is that the study’s recommendations are based on a finding that, although statistically significant, accounts for only 02% (yes, that’s right) of the variance. In other words, 98% of variance in intelligence is not accounted for by the genetics being flaunted. But we are encouraged to look for hopeful interventions in this advanced genetics field while the numerous other things such as providing better the needs of disadvantaged and deprived kids can be ignored.

Do the genetics researchers continue to emphasize the need to look even more closely at genes, whilst their study itself says it accounts for a mere 2% of the variance in educational attainment, because of self-interest?  Money for early childhood enrichment or stimulation for all kids will not bring funds to geneticists, after all. Or is there yet another interest group that wants us to  keep exploring the tiniest genetic contributors to disease, so that attention can be drawn away from hugely more powerful environmental and social contributors?

Recall, for instance the numerous studies focusing on ‘the addiction gene’ underlying alcohol dependence or the money the tobacco industry threw into studies to distract attention from its product – by implicating a genetic predisposition for lung cancer. Blame the genes of a few unfortunates while ignoring the powerful actions that can reduce tobacco (or alcohol) use.

What is the sensible answer to the gene-hype problem?

Turning our backs on the promise that gene work offers makes no sense.                

Even worse though is to fall for propaganda that distracts us from other simple and powerful avenues available to advance human health.