[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different perspectives: "How should DNA tests for intelligence be used, if at all, by parents and educators?"]
It's 2019. Prenatal genetic tests are being used to help parents select from healthy and diseased eggs. Genetic risk profiles are being created for a range of common diseases. And embryonic gene editing has moved into the clinic. The science community is nearly unanimous on the question of whether we should be consulting our genomes as early as possible to create healthy offspring. If you can predict it, let's prevent it, and the sooner, the better.
There are big issues with IQ genetics that should be considered before parents and educators adopt DNA IQ predictions.
When it comes to care of our babies, kids, and future generations, we are doing things today that we never even dreamed would be possible. But one area that remains murky is the long fraught question of IQ, and whether to use DNA science to tell us something about it. There are big issues with IQ genetics that should be considered before parents and educators adopt DNA IQ predictions.
IQ tests have been around for over a century. They've been used by doctors, teachers, government officials, and a whole host of institutions as a proxy for intelligence, especially in youth. At times in history, test results have been used to determine whether to allow a person to procreate, remain a part of society, or merely stay alive. These abuses seem to be a distant part of our past, and IQ tests have since garnered their fair share of controversy for exhibiting racial and cultural biases. But they continue to be used across society. Indeed, much of the literature aimed at expecting parents justifies its recommendations (more omegas, less formula, etc.) based on promises of raising a baby's IQ.
This is the power of IQ testing sans DNA science. Until recently, the two were separate entities, with IQ tests indicating a coefficient created from individual responses to written questions and genetic tests indicating some disease susceptibility based on a sequence of one's DNA. Yet in recent years, scientists have begun to unlock the secrets of inherited aspects of intelligence with genetic analyses that scan millions of points of variation in DNA. Both bench scientists and direct-to-consumer companies have used these new technologies to find variants associated with exceptional IQ scores. There are a number of tests on the open market that parents and educators can use at will. These tests purport to reveal whether a child is inherently predisposed to be intelligent, and some suggest ways to track them for success.
I started looking into these tests when I was doing research for my book, "Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics." This book investigated the new genetic science of social phenomena, like educational attainment and political persuasion, investment strategies, and health habits. I learned that, while many of the scientists doing much of the basic research into these things cautioned that the effects of genetic factors were quite small, most saw testing as one data point among many that could help to somehow level the playing field for young people. The rationale went that in certain circumstances, some needed help more than others. Why not put our collective resources together to help them?
Good nutrition, support at home, and access to healthcare and education make a huge difference in how people do.
Some experts believed so strongly in the power of DNA behavioral prediction that they argued it would be unfair not to use predictors to determine a kid's future, prevent negative outcomes, and promote the possibility for positive ones. The educators out in the wider world that I spoke with agreed. With careful attention, they thought sociogenomic tests could help young people get the push they needed when they possessed DNA sequences that weren't working in their favor. Officials working with troubled youth told me they hoped DNA data could be marshaled early enough that kids would thrive at home and in school, thereby avoiding ending up in their care. While my conversations with folks centered around sociogenomic data in general, genetic IQ prediction was completely entangled in it all.
I present these prevailing views to demonstrate both the widespread appeal of genetic predictors as well as the well-meaning intentions of those in favor of using them. It's a truly progressive notion to help those who need help the most. But we must question whether genetic predictors are data points worth looking at.
When we examine the way DNA IQ predictors are generated, we see scientists grouping people with similar IQ test results and academic achievements, and then searching for the DNA those people have in common. But there's a lot more to scores and achievements than meets the eye. Good nutrition, support at home, and access to healthcare and education make a huge difference in how people do. Therefore, the first problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that the data points themselves may be compromised by numerous inaccuracies.
We must then ask ourselves where the deep, enduring inequities in our society are really coming from. A deluge of research has shown that poor life outcomes are a product of social inequalities, like toxic living conditions, underfunded schools, and unhealthy jobs. A wealth of research has also shown that race, gender, sexuality, and class heavily influence life outcomes in numerous ways. Parents and caregivers feed, talk, and play differently with babies of different genders. Teachers treat girls and boys, as well as members of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, differently to the point where they do better and worse in different subject areas.
Healthcare providers consistently racially profile, using diagnostics and prescribing therapies differently for the same health conditions. Access to good schools and healthcare are strongly mitigated by one's race and socioeconomic status. But even youth from privileged backgrounds suffer worse health and life outcomes when they identify or are identified as queer. These are but a few examples of the ways in which social inequities affect our chances in life. Therefore, the second problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that it obscures these very real, and frankly lethal, determinants. Instead of attending to the social environment, parents and educators take inborn genetics as the reason for a child's successes or failures.
It is time that we shift our priorities from seeking genetic causes to fixing the social causes we know to be real.
The other problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that research into the weightiness of DNA evidence has shown time and again that people take DNA evidence more seriously than they do other kinds of evidence. So it's not realistic to say that we can just consider IQ genetics as merely one tiny data point. People will always give more weight to DNA evidence than it deserves. And given its proven negligible effect, it would be irresponsible to do so.
It is time that we shift our priorities from seeking genetic causes to fixing the social causes we know to be real. Parents and educators need to be wary of solutions aimed at them and their individual children.
[Editor's Note: Read another perspective in the series here.]
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.