Could Biologically Enhancing Our Morality Save Our Species?
As a species, we are prone to weaponizing. There is a famous anecdote from Wulf Schievenhovel, a German anthropologist who was working in the highlands of New Guinea studying a local tribe. One day, he offered two tribesmen a flight in an airplane. They duly accepted but showed up with two large stones. When he asked why, they told him that they wanted to drop them on a neighboring village. Ethologist Frans de Waal later remarked on this story that Schievenhovel had effectively "witnessed the invention of the bomb."
Today you don't have to be Putin or Kim Jong Un to pose an existential threat.
Modern technology has given us access to more than just rocks. In 2011, a Swedish man was arrested after attempting a nuclear fission in his kitchen. And in the inaugural issue of this magazine, my colleague Hank Greely raised a terrifying prospect:
"do-it-yourself hobbyists can use CRISPR [gene editing]… to change the genomes of whole species of living things – domestic or wild; animal, vegetable, or microbial – cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening."
In science fiction, it is typically governments that take over technologies and use them for evil. That risk is of course no fiction. It is an ongoing problem that we have addressed through institutions: democracies, constitutions, legal systems and international treaties, and groups working together as checks and balances. It isn't perfect, but it has worked (so far).
Today you don't have to be Putin or Kim Jong Un to pose an existential threat. We are rapidly acquiring the technological ability for individuals and groups not just to cause major harm, but to do so exactly as Hank said: "cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening."
How should we address this problem? Together with Ingmar Persson, a fellow philosophy professor at Gothenburg, Sweden, I have argued that while education, institutions and good policing are important, we may need to think more radically.
We could adapt our biology so that we can appreciate the suffering of foreign or future people in the same instinctive way we do our friends and neighbors.
We evolved, along with the New Guinea tribesmen, to care about our small group and to be suspicious of outsiders. We evolved to cooperate well within our group, at a size where we could keep an eye on free riders. And we evolved to have the ability, and occasionally the desire to harm others, but with a natural limit on the amount of harm we could do—at least before others could step in to prevent, punish or kill us.
Our limitations have also become apparent in another form of existential threat: resource depletion. Despite our best efforts at educating, nudging, and legislating on climate change, carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 are expected to come in at the highest ever following a predicted rise of 2 percent. Why? We aren't good at cooperating in larger groups where freeriding is not easily spotted. We also deal with problems in order of urgency. A problem close by is much more significant to us than a problem in the future. That's why even if we accept there is a choice between economic recession now or natural disasters and potential famine in the future, we choose to carry on drilling for oil. And if the disasters and famine are present day, but geographically distant, we still choose to carry on drilling.
So what is our radical solution? We propose that there is a need for what we call moral bioenhancement. That is, for seeking a biological intervention that can help us overcome our evolved moral limitations. For example, adapting our biology so that we can appreciate the suffering of foreign or future people in the same instinctive way we do our friends and neighbors. Or, in the case of individuals, in addressing the problem of psychopathy from a biological perspective.
There is no reason in principle why humans could not be genetically modified...to make them kinder, happier, more conscientious, altruistic and just.
We have been dramatically successful at modifying various moral characteristics of non-human animals. Over ten thousand years or so, we have turned wolves into dogs by selective breeding, and those dogs into breeds with behavioural as well as physical characteristics: certain breeds can be faithful, hard working, good tempered and intelligent (or the opposite). Scientists have manipulated the expression of genes in prairie voles to cause them to form a mate bond more quickly, and in monkeys to make them work harder. There is no reason in principle why humans could not be genetically modified using gene editing, or their brains modified in other ways, to make them kinder, happier, more conscientious, altruistic and just.
One objection is that this is a pipe dream: even if it is acceptable to do this, it is so unlikely to be achievable, it is not worth pursuing. However, research has shown that we are already morally modified. This is widely accepted when it comes to negative effects. For example, we all know that alcohol can lead people to aggressive or other destructive behaviours that they would not have countenanced sober. In a 2008 case, a retired UK teacher was cleared of child pornography charges after he successfully argued his behaviour was caused by a drug prescribed for his Parkinson's disease. There is also evidence that we can be morally modified in a more positive direction. For example, SSRIs like Prozac, a class of drugs widely used to treat depression, have been shown to act on healthy volunteers to make them more cooperative and less critical.
Another objection is that we need the negative aspects of our human character. We need people who can fight wars. We need to be able to blot out the suffering of the wider world: to experience it as we would if it applied to our nearest and dearest would be unbearable. This might be so. If aggressiveness and denial, or strong bonding to small communities, are important traits, it is important that we understand how, and to what degree, they should be controlled. It is unlikely that nature has dished out exactly the right levels of all morally relevant characteristics on an individual or population level. We don't claim to have all the answers to what characteristics we need to enhance, and what characteristics we need to diminish. But we see no reason to believe that the status quo is the optimum.
We haven't argued that we should go blindly in now with half-baked moral enhancers, or that we should forget about moral education, or legal solutions. Evolution has a built-in response to existential threats through adaptation. But adaptation takes generations and can't deal with threats that take out a whole population. Some threats are too important —and too urgent—to be left to chance.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.