Everything we know about evolution tells us that humans have primate ancestors, and that the development of our complex brains is what allowed ancient humans to forge the path we are on today. Determining what changes in the primates' brain made our tree of evolution take shape is something that scientists in China are addressing in a revolutionary and terrifying way.
A new study led by researchers at the Kunming Institute of Zoology combined human brain genes with modern macaque monkeys, creating transgenic specimens that demonstrate more advanced problem-solving skills than their unmodified siblings. If you think this sounds like the plot of a bad science fiction movie, it's because it does.
Geneticists have identified many genes that differ between humans and primates, but determining which of the genes could have led to changes in brain chemistry has proven to be incredibly challenging. It is believed that some genes are related to advanced speech, while others seem to be badociated with the overall size of the brain.
As MIT Technology Review Reports, the Chinese research team focused on a gene called MCPH1 that, when damaged, produces babies with smaller brains than is typical. When adding the human version of MCPH1 to monkey embryos, 11 samples were obtained, but six of them died before the tests could be performed.
The remaining five, which the scientists confirmed have multiple copies of the human gene, were responsible for completing the memory tests and underwent MRI scans. Interestingly, the researchers noticed that the monkeys' brains were not actually larger than their unmodified companions, but they performed better with short-term memory exercises.
Obviously there are a lot of ethical concerns here, among which is whether or not scientists should be manipulating the composition of primate brains. The research has received much criticism, and some researchers have written about the dangers and ethical pitfalls of playing with complex brains in the name of science.
However, researchers who participate in the brain modification study try to continue their work and may start experimenting with different genes in the human brain in the future.
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