For some time, intellect was believed to be genetically inherited. Studies suggested that up to 75% of intelligence is determined by a person's gene pool, and the remaining 25% determined by environmental factors like schooling or social groups.
But how in the world did the team manage to figure something like that out? Well, they started with 100 mouse brains, 122 samples of human brain, and 102 whole human brains preserved post-mortem. Then, genetic patterns regarding neurodevelopment problems or memory were checked against 6,732 people in a previous study of Scottish families. The team then used supercomputers to assess patterns, ultimately discovering that the genes impaired in those with developmental problems were the very same that were recognized in healthy, intelligent people.
The discovery involves two clusters, M1 and M3, that serve as networks including hundreds of genes that control intelligence. Identifying them is a major step in itself, but now researchers are wondering what to do with the new discovery.
Traits like intelligence work together like a football team playing different positions, Dr. Johnson explained. By identifying those players and their capabilities, scientists can manipulate the entire game.
Neurologist Michael Johnson said of his team's discovery, "We know that genetics plays a major role in intelligence but until now haven't known which genes are relevant. What's exciting about this is that the genes we have found are likely to share a common regulation, which means potentially we could manipulate a whole set of genes whose activity is linked to human intelligence."
That's right. Researchers are considering altering a child's genes at birth to ensure their intelligence, under so-called "master switches" that allow those specific genes to be turned on or off, in simple terms.
Of course, the same study that suggested the possibility of turning these genes "on or off" also warned that, when the genes are mutated or ordered wrongly, the procedure could lead to the opposite effect. (Dull thought patterns and other serious cognitive impairments.)
But Dr. Johnson reminded readers and scientists around the world that we commonly manipulate our bodies to better suit our needs. "The idea of ultimately using drugs to affect cognitive performance is not in any way new. We all drink coffee to improve our cognitive performance," Dr. Johnson said. "It's about understanding the pathways that are related to cognitive ability both in health and disease, especially disease so one day we could help people with learning disabilities fulfil their potential. That is very important."
Of course, future genetic manipulation wouldn't be limited to those who just want to be smarter. Scientists involved in the study explained that the discovery of these genes could lead to a cure for many neurodevelopment disorders.
Another neuroscientist involved in the study, Professor Robert Plomin, believes children should be screened at an early age for a lack of these genes, so their curriculums could be better suited to their needs.
"Understanding the specific genetic and environmental factors influencing individual differences in educational achievement - and the complex interplay between them - could help educationalists develop effective personalized learning programs, to help every child reach their potential by the end of compulsory education," he said.
But other geneticists are wary of that plan. Professor of Genetics at University of Kent Darren Griffin has said on the subject, "Genetics is the science of inheritance, not pre-determinism, and there is no substitute for hard work and application."