[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.]
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."