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Is It Possible to Make People Smarter?

Maps of “intelligence genes” are being assembled, but their practical applications are not yet clear.
August 20, 2015

With the advent of gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, it’s not necessarily far-fetched to think that one day human genetics could be reformatted to make people smarter. But it’s more likely in the near term that people will be able to choose embryos with a genetic likelihood of developing into children with high IQs.

Hand selection

BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), a private company in Shenzhen, China, is one of several research groups attempting to create a map of all genes that affect intelligence (see Innovators Under 35 2013: Bowen Zhao and “Inside China’s Genome Factory”). There are probably thousands of possible DNA variations in a person’s genome that influence intelligence, and only around 70 have been found so far, according to Stephen Hsu, vice president for research at Michigan State University and a scientific advisor to BGI.

Hsu believes a fuller map may be available in five years, allowing parents who use in vitro fertilization to have doctors select embryos with optimal genetics for intelligence. “In the future, in some societies, the perspective could become ‘Sex is for recreation; science is for reproduction,’” he says. “In my opinion national health services should make this technology available to everyone—otherwise we’ll have a really terrible kind of inequality.”

BGI is doing its research by sequencing the genomes of people with very high IQs. So far, the researchers have collected information from several thousand individuals, but some geneticists have questioned whether the sample size is big enough to be meaningful.

Brain stimulation

Tinkering with genetics isn’t the only possibility. Although it’s not the same thing as raising your IQ, which is a measure of aptitude, you might someday be able to gradually alter your neurophysiology to better support problem-solving skills. That’s the idea of a U.S. government-funded initiative called Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem-Solving (SHARP), on which the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is spending $12.5 million over three and a half years toward “improvements in performance for adults in information-rich environments.”

In one project funded by this initiative, researchers at the University of New Mexico are experimenting with applying electrical stimulation to the heads of people playing “brain training” computer games, similar to the ones Lumosity offers. The project uses transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—a painless, low-level electrical shock—to activate neurons in specific areas of the brain known to be involved in memory, reasoning, and decision-making. Subjects in one study were initially tested on memory-intensive tasks, like finding hidden objects in an image, and then tested again after experiencing some form of stimulation. Those who repeated the tasks after receiving tDCS and playing the computer games saw their scores increase by 27 percent from the first time they tried; those who repeated the tasks after playing the computer games without tDCS improved by only 14 percent.

Other researchers funded under the same initiative, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, are taking a broader approach. Those researchers are combining tDCS with training in fitness, meditation, and nutrition to enhance the mental acuity and judgment of 315 test subjects. Results are not yet available.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth noting that tDCS remains very much unproven. An analysis of several studies, published last winter, found that it “does not appear to generate reliable cognitive effect.”

The Takeaway:

In the race to make humans smarter, two camps have emerged: those who aim to enhance the physiology of adult brains with something akin to an intelligence therapy, and those who hope to go right to the source, altering the heritability of intelligence to begin with.

Thanks to George Sacco for this question. If you have one, send it to

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