News Corp Australia reports that a Chinese research team has been implanting human genes in monkey brains. The research, funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and led by the country’s Kunming Institute of Zoology, is looking into cognitive effects of brain development in primates.
The program led to the creation of eleven monkeys carrying human copies of the MCPH1 gene (Microcephalin 1). MCPH1 is closely related to brain size and development in primates and may have played a part in the evolutionary development of higher cognitive functions in humans.
Of the eleven monkeys, six survived birth and five managed to live until the scientist published their report in March. According to the research published in National Science Review, the surviving monkey’s showed a delay in the development of the brain’s neural system. This delay is similar to the extended period of brain development seen in humans.
The article published by News Corp states that “One difference between humans and monkeys is that humans take a lot longer to form their brain’s neural-network…Slowing down the brain maturing process can lead to improved intelligence.”
How Implanting Human Genes Into Monkey Brains Has Worked
The research also documented that monkeys carrying the gene exhibited quicker reaction times and better short term memory skills.
The Chinese research team claims that the study will provide important insight into what makes human brain development different from that of other primates, and may be helpful in understanding abnormal brain development in humans like microcephaly.
The research has come under fire recently with some questioning the implications of such experiments.
Dr. Martyn Styner, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who developed the software tools used in the research, has distanced himself from the program and raised questions about ethics involved.
Dr. Styner told News Corp, “There are ethically acceptable uses for transgenic animals (possibly even monkeys) that do not target the brain but with another goal, eg making it a potential organ donor for a human. That’s a very different setting then what we have in this work and one with much less significant ethical implications.”
Dr. Styner worries that “in this study by changing the brain and brain development, the researchers created a monkey that was more human-like — neither human nor monkey.”
China’s Scientific Community Continues to Push Boundaries
This is not the first time China’s scientific community has come under fire for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable research. In January, scientists cloned five monkeys from the DNA of a single monkey, who was itself genetically altered. This came only a year after China was the first country in the world to successfully clone Macaques.
The Chinese Institute of Neuroscience defends these experiments and others sanctioned by the Chinese government. They claim that genetically altering monkeys and even cloning them will lead to a reduction in the total number of monkeys subjected to medical testing. They also say that the experiments are important and could one day “shed light on human gene-related disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
We’ll have to keep an eye on this one. Let’s just hope that the researchers didn’t name one of the monkeys Caesar.