HONG KONG, China (AFP): Chinese scientists have implanted genes from the human brain into monkeys, in a study aimed at providing information on the unique evolution of human intelligence.
The researchers inserted human versions of MCPH1, a gene that scientists believe plays a role in the development of the human brain, in 11 rhesus monkeys.
They discovered that the brains of monkeys, like those of humans, took longer to develop, and the animals performed better on tests of short-term memory and reaction time compared to wild monkeys.
However, the monkeys did not develop brains larger than the control group.
The test, the latest in a series of biomedical experiments in China that have fueled debates on medical ethics, has already generated ethical concerns and comparisons with the "Planet of the Apes" of dystopian science fiction.
It was conducted by researchers from the Kunming Institute of Zoology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, working with researchers from the United States at the University of North Carolina.
The study was published last month in the National Science Review, based in Beijing.
"Our findings demonstrated that transgenic nonhuman primates (excluding ape species) have the potential to provide important, and potentially unique, information about basic questions of what really makes a human being unique," the authors wrote.
The monkeys underwent memory tests that required them to remember colors and shapes on a screen, and underwent MRI scans.
Only five of the monkeys survived in the testing stage.
The authors said that the rhesus monkey, although genetically closer to humans than to rodents, is still distant enough to alleviate ethical concerns.
However, some questioned the ethics of the experiment.
"Simply go to the" Planet of the Apes "immediately in the popular imagination," said Jacqueline Glover, bioethics at the University of Colorado.
"Humanizing them is causing harm, where would they live and what would they do? They do not believe a being that can not have a meaningful life in any context," he told MIT Technology Review.
Larry Baum, a researcher at the Genomic Sciences Center at the University of Hong Kong, downplayed science fiction comparisons.
"The genome of rhesus monkeys differs from ours in a little bit, that's millions of individual DNA bases that differ between humans and monkeys," he said.
"This study changed some of those into just one of about 20,000 genes.
"You can decide for yourself if there is something to worry about."
Baum added that the study supported the theory that "the slower maturity of brain cells could be a factor in improving intelligence during human evolution."
In January, Chinese scientists discovered five cloned macaques of a single animal that was genetically engineered to have a sleep disorder, which all developed signs of mental problems such as depression, anxiety and behaviors related to schizophrenia.
They said the study was intended to help research on human psychological problems.
And last year, Chinese researcher He Jiankui surprised the scientific community after revealing that he had genetically edited the twins born in November to prevent them from contracting HIV.
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