Posts Tagged ‘human enhancement’

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Keeping the brain plastic

Wednesday, 31 March, 2010

Neural plasticity, the capacity for neurons to change their connections, is a fundamental property of the brain. It’s what allows us to learn. But as we age, the plasticity of the brain decreases. Indeed, there are developmental windows called ‘critical periods’ where the brain is especially plastic, usually when very young. The neural basis for vision, as an example, is laid down at during infancy, and doesn’t change easily thereafter. This is why kittens, raised in a visual environment of many vertical stripes, find it difficult as adult cats to see horizontal stripes – their brains, while plastic, had adapted for certain visual features, and found it difficult to adapt to new ones.

Recently, researchers at the University of California San Francisco have found a way to renew the infant-like plasticity of the mouse brain, allowing childlike learning to begin again. They did this by injecting embryonic mouse neurons (not to be confused with embryonic stem cells) into young mice, which had been raised with one eye deprived of light. Without the injection, mice that were deprived up until around a month old (the usual critical period for mouse ocular dominance) would have difficulty adapting to seeing through the eye that had been deprived of light. But with an injection of embryonic neurons into the brain, the mice went through sort of a second critical period, when the injected brain cells were about a month old, thereby aiding the mice to learn to see from their deprived eye.

This has profound consequences for enhancement of human intelligence. The obvious therapeutic outcome would be using embryonic human neurons, taken from human embryos or cultured from human embryonic stem cells, and injecting these into adult humans to give a second chance at a critical period of learning, which would be useful for re-learning to walk after an injury or learning to adapt to blindness (or, I don’t know…learning to control your new cyborg limbs?). But on a grander scale, if we could have a constant trickle of neural stem cells, developing into immature neurons, throughout life, we could very well keep our critical periods going for the rest of our lives, allowing our brains to stay young and malleable!

There is one caveat I can think of. There must be a reason why the brain has evolved to shut off critical periods of learning. Most likely, learning is a costly process in some way, thereby creating a pressure to keep learning periods are short as possible.  If this is merely an increased energy cost, humans in the first world can probably deal with it (seeing as most of us eat too much food energy anyway). But if shutting down mechanisms of learning is necessary for enhancing the function of the newly learned circuits (that is, if we don’t perform as well if we keep ‘changing our minds’), there may be a question of whether learning is worth the cost.

I would assume in this ever changing technological environment and with our lives getting longer and longer (making what we learned during our critical period more and more irrelevant), that keeping the brain plastic would be very useful indeed.

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Journal of Evolution and Technology has some reading material

Tuesday, 26 May, 2009

I know I’m not posting as frequently as I could be, but the Journal of Evolution and Technology has two special issues that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

  • Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights (HETHR) Special Issue

-vi:  James Hughes:  “Introduction”

1-9:  Patrick Hopkins:  “Is Enhancement Worthy of Being a Right?”

10-26: Fritz Allhoff:  “Germ Line Genetic-Enhancement and Rawlsian Primary Goods”:

27-34: Martin Gunderson:  “Enhancing Human Rights: How the Use of Human Rights Treaties to Prohibit Genetic Engineering Weakens Human Rights”

35-41: Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff:  “Against Unrestricted Human Enhancement”

42-49: Fred Gifford:  “Ethical Issues in Enhancement Research”

50-55: Aubrey de Grey:  “Our Right to Life”

56-69: Gregory Fowler and Kirk Allison:  “Technology and Citizenry: A Model for Public Consultation in Science Policy Formation”

70-78: Laura Colleton:  “The Elusive Line Between Enhancement and Therapy and Its Effects on Health Care in the U.S.”

79-85: Anita Silvers:  “The right not to be normal as the essence of freedom”

86-93: Martin Gunderson:  “Genetic Engineering and the Consent of Future Persons”

94-107: Martine Rothblatt:  “Are We Transbemans Yet?”

108-115: Mark Walker:  “Cognitive Enhancement and the Identity Objection”

116-123: Eva Caldera:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Theories of Justice: Contemplating the Malleability of Nature and Self”

124-128:  Dawn Jakubowski:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Liberatory Possibilities of Antidepressant Therapy”

129-142: George Dvorsky:  “All Together Now: Considerations for biologically uplifting non-human animals”

As you can see, both issues have articles that cover interesting topics and the articles are all worth a read. Check out the contents of these issues, and read them for free.

I don’t think any of those articles, nor their authors, express arguments that are perfectly identical to mine (in other words, I have a bone to pick with most of their articles). But don’t worry, I’ll soon be blogging more frequently again, or at least I hope to.

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Boosting brainpower

Thursday, 14 May, 2009

The practical and ethical issues with intelligence enhancement are receiving more attention, with a recent article in New Scientist titled “Will designer brains divide humanity“.

For the most part, the article is quite basic, but I have an issue with one part in particular:

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested.

This is none other than cybernetic favoritism! I mean sure, genes effecting intelligence aren’t obvious, but it’s also not obvious how and where to interface a brain chip to increase intelligence. And though neural prostheses are being tested, no neural prosthesis has increased any aspect of intelligence in any brain, whereas there have been 33 genetic alterations that increase the learning and memory of mice (not to mention that all the differences in intelligence between animals are genetic in origin). Considering the annoyance of having surgery for neural implants compared to the ease of a simple injection for genetic modification, I would personally put my money on the genetic enhancement of intelligence. Nonetheless, both avenues should be pursued, and might eventually complement one another.

Onto the ethical issues discussed in the article, most are fairly basic. Starting with human dignity, referring to comments made by Dietrich Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany:

One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says.

These concerns are all quite valid, but aren’t necessarily impossible barriers. If enhancement technology was supported by the government, then no people wanting such technology would be left without it. And the discrimination I will deal with in a minute, after looking at the next section:

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

I do actually worry about enhancement being socially divisive, but I am not sure this would occur only by discrimination of the enhanced towards the un-enhanced. As I have argued previously, it’s entirely possible that the enhanced will be viewed as unnatural disgraces to humanity, and the pure, natural humans would discriminate against them because of it.

The rest of the article deals with issues such as brain plasticity, evolution and epigenetics. These are not particularly relevant to any ethical concerns and neither will they significantly enhance the intelligence of the average reader of this blog, so I’m not going to address them here.

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Miah on enhancement

Friday, 1 May, 2009

Andy Miah has an article on enhancement in The Guardian.

It’s short, but I agree with many of the conclusions. And apparently the European Parliament will be looking at the issue of enhancement soon, so I’ll be blogging on that as soon as more news comes to hand.

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Genetic enhancement of the human metabolism

Thursday, 4 December, 2008

Any living organism must be actively metabolising, or else it will not be able to sustain itself. Metabolism is the name given to the sum of all processes involved in producing and using energy, and forming and breaking down molecules, and disposing of the resultant waste. These can be divided into a number of steps, each catalysed by an enzyme, and the steps in turn can be organised into pathways. Catabolic pathways are those that break down molecules and release energy, whereas anabolic pathways are those that form molecules and consume energy. Altogether, these pathways can be represented as a metabolic network or map.

WikiUser Zephyris has uploaded a colourful and simplified diagram of a metabolic network to Wikipedia, as seen below:

There are some very large and detailed metabolic maps available, such as those seen at sites like iPath.

It is obvious that if these networks were street maps, they would contain many one-way streets and dead-ends. This is because evolution is lazy. Well, technically evolution isn’t even able to think, let alone show a lack of motivation, but the point if a process can be omitted without negatively impacting the organism too much, a mutation to the enzyme responsible for that step in the pathway will not be selected against (or may even be selected for). Metabolisms of various organisms, therefore, are imperfect, requiring many nutrients, cofactors and minerals to function correctly.

Humans are not exempt to the ‘laziness’ of evolution. As a well known example, is the inability of humans to produce vitamin C (and thus why it is called a vitamin). Sometime about sixty million years ago, the ancestor of the entire group of haplorrhines (a group that includes humans and other apes, as well as monkeys and tarsiers) had a mutation in the gene GLO, which codes for the enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase (also known as GULO). This enzyme is responsible for the last step in a pathway that converts L-glucose to L-ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C (Nishikimi and Yagi, 1991). Because of this mutation, the haplorrhines have to eat food containing vitamin C to prevent illnesses like scurvy; this was never really a problem, as most haplorrhines are frugivores (eat a lot of fruit, rich in Vitamin C). Therefore, this enzyme remained lost in haplorrhines, with mutations building up in the gene unchecked and now in humans the last remnants of the gene can be seen as the GULO pseudogene on chromosome 8.

It is therefore the case that each and every human inherited the metabolic disease hypoascorbia. Being the fun sorts that we are, humans have tried to fix this. Using genetic engineering to insert a functional copy of the GULO gene from mice into human cells, researchers had already shown that vitamin C synthesis was restored (Ha et al, 2003). More recently, scientists genetically engineered mice to have both copies of their GULO gene knocked out, then re-inserted the gene to restore ascorbic acid synthesis (Li et al, 2008).

Genetic technology, then, may allow us to restore many similarly lost enzymes to the human metabolic system, and even to take enzymes that evolved in other organisms and put them to use in our body. With appropriate regulation, this would cure the scourge the scourge that is nutrition disorders. Those in poorer nations are often afflicted with hypoalimentation (malnutrion) and those in richer nations have problems with hyperalimentation (especially obesity), both caused by the human metabolism being an innefficient hodgepodge of enzymatic pathways.

For a human enhanced with a plethora of new metabolic pathways these nutrition disorders would be far less of a problem. Enzymes would be available to get from each point on the metabolic map to any other point, as many of the essential nutrients, those required nutrients that normal humans cannot synthesise internally, are produced in other organisms (such as the amino acid tryptophan, produced in plants and microorganisms but not in animals). With proper regulation, the body will do the balancing of your diet for you, so you can healthily live on chocolate and ice cream (though probably still with the need for mineral suplements in pill form, as no enzyme can convert one element to another).

In addition, this could potentially alleviate undernutrition too, by broadening the range of foods available for human consumption to include anything eaten by living organisms. With the genes for cellulysis, cellulosic plants could be digested without the need for a gutfull of cellulase-producing bacteria. With enzymes available to break toxins, contaminated or poisonous food could be consumed. And with novel enzymes, other carbon-based materials like plastics (i.e. rubber, polystyrene, polypropylene) could be digested, though this may make medical applications of those plastics more difficult – you don’t want to digest your pacemaker or cyborg implants (at least, not usually). It may even be possible to add organelles responsible for photosynthetic anabolism, allowing for sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to be used as raw materials for the human metabolism. A human enhanced in this way would be the ultimate survivalist, able to consume a wide range of foods normally inedible to humans (of course, taste receptors may have to be adjusted somehow to make these foods palatable).

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Electrogenic humans

Monday, 13 October, 2008

Electrogenesis refers to the production of electrical activity in living tissue. In a sense, we humans are already electrogenic; each of our brain cells (neurons) produces about 70 millivolts of electric potential and our muscle cells about 95 millivolts. They do this by using chemical energy (in the form of ATP) to power electrogenic pumps, most commonly the Na+/K+ ATPase (sodium-potassium transporter, but usually abbreviated to NAKA)- this enzyme is so common in the massive human brain and muscles that it is responsible for using up to 40% of our resting energy consumption (and the man who discovered it, Jens Skou, was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This pumps out 3 Na+ atoms in exchange for 2 K+ atoms. This is a good deal, because three positively charged ions (cations) are exchanged for two, which causes the electric potential to drop below zero. With enough of these going, it will drop give the cell a slight charge.

But some marine creatures really excel in this aspect, with specialised cells called electrocytes dedicated entirely to the production of an electric potential, which they use primarily to communicate and sense prey but also to stun other animals (prey or predators). These include the electric rays (Torpediniformes) which can produce a potential of around 200 volts, the electric catfish (Malapteruridae) which are capable of producing 350 volts and, perhaps one the best known (erroneously as the electric eel), the electric knifefish (Electrophorus electricus), capable of a shock of up to 600 volts (Mermelstein et al, 2000). The electric knifefish/eel has been proposed as next on the list of animals to have their genome sequenced (Albert et al, 2008), which I think will speed this sort of research along quite nicely.

These animals have a specialised organ, called (of all things) the electric organ, which is made up of thousands of these electrocytes (sometimes also called electroplaques or electroplaxes) organised in series (with each series stacked in parallel to sum currents), with each cell producing a potential about 150mV (actually, there are two potentials, one 65mV and the other 85mV. For details, read Jian Xu’s scientific paper, which I link to below). That doesn’t seem like much, but stack ten thousand of these in one organ and, if all those cells discharge at one, it will produce a 1500V electric organ discharge (EOD).

Just last month, researchers Jian Xu from Yale University and David Lavan from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Maryland, USA) published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology outlining a theoretical upgrade to the electrocyte, able to produce 28% more power and to use chemical energy to do it with 38% greater efficiency. It was theoretical, however, but they will probably try it (or somebody else will) for real some time soon. And probably the electric fishes themselves will be slowly evolving towards this outcome themselves.

In the meantime, we can consider how awesome it would be to generate an electric current ourselves. Most in the Western world are experiencing an obesity epidemic, so we have plenty of chemical energy to spare for producing an electric potential. The most likely and practical option will be to have a small patch of electrogenic cells surrounding any electronic implant, like the prosthetic arm and cybernetic implants we will all have by that stage. They may also prove useful in biological pacemakers, if the heart was surrounded with electrogenic cells to provide impulses (though, it would probably prove easier to just repair the heart).

More interestingly (at least in my opinion), we could genetically engineer (or implant) our very own electric organ. If the electric organ was just below the skin of our chest and arms, but very well insulated except for at ends of our fingers, we’d literally have the full current and voltage of the electric organ at our fingertips. We’d also need to wire up the brain control mechanisms of this organ, specifically some brainstem nucleus to act as a pacemaker to ensure all those electrocytes fire together, so that we could control when the electric shocks occur.

Now, before we get all excited about throwing lightning bolts, let me first remind everyone of how physics works back in the real world. As I said, bioelectrogenesis has evolved only in aquatic organisms, because water is a good conductor. Air, on the other hand, is a damn good insulator until a phenomena known as dielectric breakdown occurs (this is when the air ionises to become conductive). The dielectric strength of air is 3,000,000 volts per metre (3MV/m), but greater on hot or humid days. This means that to throw an arc discharge (i.e. a zap of lightning) across on metre of air, you require 3 million volts. You can throw a much smaller arc with much less, as anyone who as zapped themselves with static electricity on a doorknob will know (noting Paschen’s law, which shows that even a small voltage of 500V will be sufficient to cross a gap of half a centimetre). If I hold my thumb and forefinger just a centimetre apart, I will still require 30,000 volts to throw an arc between them. To produce that with a current of 1 amp (which probably won’t be necessary, but let’s assume that for the sake of ease of calculation) would require about 150,000 cells (assuming each produces 200mV), which is far more than the electric eel has (and, mind you, the electric eel dedicates about 80% of its 25kg body to its electric organs, and still only manages about 4000 cells per series).  So in other words, you’re not going to be able to throw lightning (which makes sense, because we don’t even have a practical ‘lightning gun‘ yet, let alone a biological version).

But I don’t really care. I’d settle for being able to make a lightbulb glow or give somebody an annoying shock if they irritated me (essentially a biological electroschock weapon). So, where’s my bioelectrogenesis?

[Hat tip to fayyaad at Utter Insanity for inspiring me to try to explain how human electrogeneration is possible and bringing my attention to this recent news]

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The EVIL of orthodontics

Tuesday, 30 September, 2008

While most of are comfortable with the idea of cleaning our teeth or replacing them with dentures, we are troubled by the idea of mutilating our teeth with implanted braces for the purpose of “enhancing” our bite. It brings the threat of “designer smiles”, which most of rightfully find repugnant. We need to define a clear border between cleaning teeth and trying to improve upon our own teeth and those of our children.

We have crooked teeth for a reason, and should think very carefully about interfering with the natural order. John 1:3 tells us “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Teeth were made, and therefore God is made them. Further, we were made in the image of God, and for us to try to tamper or re-engineer that is hubris; for scientists and doctors to invent technology to interfere with His work is the most ultimate arrogance. Man must not play God.

This contemporary obsession with the ideal smile trivialises what makes us human. Human lives can no longer be meaningful. All of us get that great feeling when we, using hard work and dedication, overcome the limitations of our dentition and achieve something great. If our success was due to an artificially enhanced smile that we received as a child, would we get the same satisfaction? If we could just change our teeth on a whim, would we feel as good about fighting through jaw pain to finish a steak sandwich? Enough is enough – we need to stay human in this engineered age.

Furthermore, braces could lead humans to become something less than human. If the idea of Frankenstein’s monster, with metal bolts protruding from the neck, wasn’t scary enough, imagine a teenage girl with a mass of metal wires interwoven between her teeth, put there by her parents and her orthodontist who considered her natural smile to be loathsome. If the monsters of science-fiction should have taught us anything, it is that a brace-face will be monstrous to any decent human being. Repugnance is, after all, a very natural and very wise response.

But metal-mouthed monsters, a blend of human with machine, are just the thin edge of the wedge. What if we could have genetic interventions to enhance how teeth grow, and ensure that no child ever has to suffer a “bad smile”? What if we could use genetic engineering or nanotechnology to reform our teeth jaws at will, into fangs or tusks? The possibilities are so mindboggling that many think we will become post-dental being, with no jaws or teeth to speak of (those with braces, and retainers, have ‘transitional dentition’, or are transdental).

In addition, how can we justify research into enhancing our natural teeth when many in third world countries can’t even get their hands on enough food to chew with their teeth? It goes against social justice to be spending this money on enhancement, when that same money could be used to prevent the tooth decay and malnourishment that afflicts many children across the world.

The most disturbing possibility, however, of this enhancement of our pearly whites will lead to a severe form of coercion and a class divide. Those with smiles that fit our image of ‘the perfect smile’ will have a definite advantage in life over those with “crooked” teeth, and the ‘have-nots’ will essentially be forced to pay for the best dental work they can afford if they want to prevent their children from falling behind. Those who do have orthodontic enhancements will earn more money, which they will use to fund the orthodontic enhancement of their children. This will lead to the divergence of the human race into two groups: the perfect-toothed “Grin-Rich” (who will control the workplace, the media, the government) and those with natural teeth, who will be their slaves. Soon, all humans may not be created equal, and our inequality will be encoded into our teeth.

What if one day those with malocclusions are considered unfit to live, and prevented from passing on their genes for “bad” teeth? This is already starting, with many countries mandating that fluoride be added to drinking water, to ensure that all children have healthy teeth. How long before the same happens with orthodontic enhancement – when a smile unpleasant to the eye is considered so obscene that it must be eradicated.

So, if we want to stop dentistry and orthodontics leading us into a new eugenics, we need to act against dental braces. A line needs to be drawn between good and bad uses of dental technology, or we will enter a brave new world of dental injustice. A clear line, enforced across the world, needs to be in place between dental maintenance and repair, and orthodontic enhancement, or we will be forced to suffer the horrors of a post-dental future.