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No Van Gogh?

Should advances in science be used to eliminate psychiatric disorders in the future?


I recently read Walter Isaacson’s book The Code Breaker about the fascinating innovations in genetic engineering over the past two decades. I’d encourage you to read it. Here’s a quick summary: Through their study of bacterial DNA, scientists have discovered how to directly edit the genetic makeup of cells, including human cells.

“She blinded me with science!" -- Thomas Dolby

What this means is that future parents will have the ability to decide the exact DNA of their offspring—not influence the genetic structure, not choose among the most promising embryos—but actually determine and control the DNA of their children and all future descendants. Making these types of inheritable genetic modifications is referred to as “germline editing.”


This holds incredible potential, both for good and bad. It brings up all kinds of ethical questions about societal fairness and the human species overall. Should wealthy parents be allowed to provide their kids with more intelligence? Should they be allowed to dial up the muscle mass, bone strength, and stamina of their children? Should we as a society allow the creation of individuals with superhuman abilities, like being able to see different wavelengths or hear extreme frequencies?


To be clear, this isn’t wishful thinking. The first humans with germline edits were twin babies born in China in 2018. Their particular enhancement was the genetic predisposition to avoid infection from the HIV virus. This doesn’t seem quite so problematic, at least to me, although at the time it caused incredible controversy. The scientific community felt that the safety of the approach hadn’t yet been fully tested, and the individual responsible received a multi-year prison sentence in China.


“You can do magic." -- America

Isaacson brings up other applications which not only seem appropriate but downright criminal if not utilized, at least once the safety hurdles have been cleared. He gives the example of Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary illness that strikes in middle age and results in the extraordinarily painful, progressive death of its sufferers. Apparently, the genetic fix is fairly straightforward, and it would effectively eliminate the disease from the human race. For something like this, that is completely preventable, how could we not take advantage of this new technology?


He then addresses psychiatric illnesses, the ones I tend to discuss a lot in this blog: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. Clearly, much research has yet to be done on these, but we do know that genetics plays a major role. If you suffer from one of these, and you could treat your child’s DNA to eliminate all chance of him or her inheriting your affliction, would you do it? Given what our family has been through, I’m fairly certain my wife and I would.


But then Isaacson offers a different perspective. So many of history’s most creative individuals have suffered from brain illness: Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Schubert, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Nash, Kurt Vonnegut, Francis Ford Coppola, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga. The list goes on and on. Years ago, Nancy Andreasen, an expert on creativity, conducted a study of thirty prominent contemporary authors. 80% had suffered from major depression or mood disorder, and 40% lived with bipolar. It may not be 100% related, but an association between creativity and brain illness certainly exists. So, this sets up a harder question: If you suffer from one of these illnesses, and you knew that your child would become the next Lady Gaga, would you still change her DNA?


“God is a concept by which we measure our pain." -- John Lennon

Although I acknowledge Isaacson’s point, it’s hard to imagine not preventing serious mental illness. In his book, he also interviews self-proclaimed bio-hacker Josiah Zayner, who suffers from bipolar disorder. “It’s terrible. It inflicts serious issues on my life. I would love to get rid of it…how can I want my child to just grow up and suffer like I have?” Zayner makes a strong case for using germline editing to rid the human race of bipolar once and for all.


In the end, determining who gets to play God is a difficult task. If we were to eradicate all psychiatric illness, would it be detrimental to society overall? Maybe, but then how should we decide who has to suffer? These questions have kept me thinking about an exchange recounted in Sylvia Nasar’s novel about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind:


“How could you, a mathematician devoted to reason and logical proof...believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?" a visitor asked, according to Nasar.
"Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did," Nash reportedly replied. "So, I took them seriously."
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