Recently a crew from BBC Horizon came to the lab I toil in as a graduate student to film this clip for a program they titled, “What Makes a Genius”. They wanted to film a knockout mouse a postdoc in the lab created, and that I happen to be doing my thesis work on. This mouse is missing a gene that is important for proper growth of neurons. Some of my work, and others, has shown that it has trouble forming connections in its brain during development. This is why we think it is not a great learner. However, the way this clip explains the research, I’d want to give my boss, Elly, a Nobel Prize for finding THE intelligence gene. So let’s go through this clip’s weak and strong points.
There are actually MANY MANY genes important for learning and memory (in the news here, here, here, here, etc), not just one! However, this gene does happen to be pretty interesting because the mouse version is 100% identical to the human version which is not very common. As Elly notes in the video, “It’s usually a sign that something’s very critical because evolution hasn’t fiddled with it.”
So now a strong point. I really like the way they describe the experiment they show. It does a great job breaking down the test and bringing up the analogy to Pavlov’s dogs – which many people have learned about in school.
Ok, another thing that bothered me. The mice can actually learn. They’re just slower learners than regular mice. Maybe that would have sounded less cool – but saying that they “simply can’t learn” is kind of deceptive. The brain is probably the most complex organ in the body, it’s really hard to just find one gene that totally messes up learning.
There are back up systems that evolution has built into our brains so that they aren’t dependent on just one gene for each function. Instead many genes are important for everything the brain does. This overlap ensures that when one gene is mutated, the brain can still develop and function pretty well. With the thousands of genes it takes to build the brain, it’s likely we all have a less than optimal mutation or two in some of our brain building genes. And this is why I think studying the brain is so very awesome – and at the same time extremely challenging. I’ve heard that there are more bytes of information moving around in a single human brain than in the entire internet! That’s how incredible our brain really is – each of us is walking around processing more information than the internet! That’s like 6 billion internets walking around the earth – the product of millions of years of evolution. Have I impressed upon you how phenomenally amazing this is yet?
Getting back to the video, it’s sad when basic science programs feel the need to twist the science they are explaining. I expect this from Hollywood movies, but from a show that is supposed to be explaining science? Why do they need to sensationalize?
Also – you can see my handwriting on the pink cards at minute 3:57 – cool – my handwriting was on TV!