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Biotech Science

Scientists Build a Smarter Rat 302

Posted by timothy
from the politicians-still-mostly-in-the-lead dept.
destinyland writes "Scientists have engineered a more intelligent rat, with three times the memory length of today's smartest rats. Reseachers bred transgenic over-expression of the NR2B gene, which increased communication between the rat's memory synapses. Activating a crucial brain receptor for just a fraction of a second longer produces a dramatic effect on memory, as proven by the rat's longer memories of the path through a maze."
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Scientists Build a Smarter Rat

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  • by treczoks (64329) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:27AM (#29963778)

    "Flowers for Algernon" was the first association that popped up from the depths of my mind...

  • by gilesjuk (604902) <giles@jones.zen@co@uk> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:30AM (#29963814)

    We need this about as much as we need a much stronger more deadly flu virus.

    When rats are vermin and carry disease, why make them even better a survival? or are they scientists thinking that if they get clever enough they'll start writing software for a living?

  • by somersault (912633) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:34AM (#29963902) Homepage Journal

    I wish there was a "-1, pathetically paranoid party pooper" mod..

  • Re:I for one (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jhon (241832) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:34AM (#29963904) Homepage Journal

    Seeing these posts is like listing to Monty Python's "I Like Traffic Lights" song.

  • by tgibbs (83782) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:39AM (#29963950)

    Kind of old news; the first report that NR2B overexpression improves rodent performance in some behavioral tests of learning and memory was was published in 1999 [ttp]. The nice thing here is that the investigators now have it working in the rat, which is a more difficult animal for transgenic studies, and a better one for behavioral work and electrophysiology.

    Nevertheless, it raises an interesting question: if intelligence can be increased by something so simple as an increase in the expression of a single NMDA receptor subunit, why hasn't it already happened? Presumably, there is a selective advantage to improved learning and memory. Presumably, there is some kind of downside that balances that selective advantage. Are there other behaviors for which the rat is impaired?

  • Re:Spooky (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rogerborg (306625) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:39AM (#29963958) Homepage

    The name escapes me, but I read a SF story that speculated on that. With super intelligent mice, rats, cats and dogs, the rats and cats ate the mice, the dogs ate the cats, then the really smart ones teamed up with people against the rats and other dogs.

    Fair point, they'd be smart enough to realise the value of opposable thumbs. Using can openers for one thing.

  • by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:41AM (#29963980) Homepage

    After all, if more memory were that simple, surely evolution would have changed that gene by itself. If it were a tradeoff, that would be much more logical.

    So what did these rats lose ? Do they have gaps in long term memory ?

    I'd watch out for the "no free lunch" idea holding true here too.

  • at what cost? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:47AM (#29964080) Homepage

    Due to his enhanced memory, the rat could not push her out of his mind. The memories refused to fade with time. The slightest sight or scent would cause him not just to remember his intense passion and total devotion, but also to relive it, as if she were still there with him. Moments later, as reality returned, he inevitably re-experienced that October afternoon when she left. The despair cut to the bottom of his soul in a way far more intense than the original break-up had been, as shock had initially numbed his pain. No more. His perfect memory of perfect happiness lifted him up so high, the inevitable fall came from an unimaginable height, and terminal velocity does not apply to emotions.

    After enduring this torture for what seemed an eternity, he finally gave in, and resolutely marched toward the wire-framed cheese, her angelic body still vivid in his mind...

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:47AM (#29964082) Homepage

    > Presumably, there is some kind of downside that balances that selective
    > advantage.

    Higher energy requirements would be a good bet.

  • by debrain (29228) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @12:03PM (#29964324) Journal

    Presumably, there is a selective advantage to improved learning and memory. Presumably, there is some kind of downside that balances that selective advantage. Are there other behaviors for which the rat is impaired

    As you suggest, there are two possibilities why this advantage hasn't occurred naturally:

    1. It adds no selective advantage;

    2. The advantage is outweighed by the costs.

    There is a third possibility, namely that the set of mutations necessary to give rise to this advantage are too improbable to occur (or perhaps even fundamentally impossible).

    Based on no knowledge whatsoever, I suspect that there probably is some selective advantage to higher intelligence in rats, over long enough periods of time. I hypothesize that the rats lack the ability to effectively dissipate heat from a highly active brain, and concurrently those evolutions that allow more effective dissipation of heat (e.g. baldness) are contrary to (or have never occurred concurrent with) the selective advantage of the intelligence. Perhaps we will breed intelligent, bald rats. [salon.com]

  • Re:Spooky (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rastilin (752802) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @12:04PM (#29964338)

    While I know that this sort of research is ultimately aimed at improving human life, for some reason I can't shake the image of a mad scientist making super-smart dogs, the experiment going awry, and an apocalyptic future of human-pitbull wars.

    On that note it won't matter even if they succeed. This country is almost certain to ban it on the basis that it gives the beneficiaries an "unethical advantage" over others. After all we already have piracetam which supposedly does something similar, and that's banned.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @12:20PM (#29964532) Journal

    Maybe the trade-off is that their brain simply needs more energy, which isn't great when food availability is the main factor limiting reproduction. Or maybe, the better memory simply doesn't help the rats too much in their natural habitat. After all, natural selection doesn't favour long memories, it favours large effective reproduction rates. If long memory doesn't lead to higher effective reproduction rates, it won't be improved by natural selection.

  • by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @12:45PM (#29964928) Homepage

    Maybe the trade-off is that their brain simply needs more energy, which isn't great when food availability is the main fact

    Let's hope so. I doubt it though : it could be brain cooling if it's energy related. Not one of the strong points of mammals. After all, brain cooling is the reason we have a head in the first place.

  • Re:Spooky (Score:3, Insightful)

    by HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn@earthlink . n et> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:04PM (#29965954)

    Could be "Day of the PagBeasts", alternate title "The Fittest". I think the author was Edgar Pagborn, but it could be J.T. McIntosh. Written in the 1940's or 50's.

    I read it once from a library and could never find it again. It wasn't all *that* good, but there was something compelling me to read it again for something I missed the first time. Never did find it. My guess is it never got printed in paperback, and was originally printed in Britain. Given that it had two titles I suspect that it must have had at least two separate printings. (I suppose one could have been in some magazine, but not one that I ever encountered.)

  • by ortholattice (175065) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @02:17PM (#29966146)

    As you suggest, there are two possibilities why this advantage hasn't occurred naturally:

    1. It adds no selective advantage;

    2. The advantage is outweighed by the costs.

    There is a third possibility, namely that the set of mutations necessary to give rise to this advantage are too improbable to occur (or perhaps even fundamentally impossible).

    Maybe there is a 4th possibility. Everyone seems to be focusing on "survivability", but once that is overcome, reproduction becomes important. Look at the ostentatious displays of some birds that have nothing to do with survivability or might even be detrimental to it. Maybe a highly intelligent rat simply becomes less interested in sex, or is less able to attract females who might prefer the dumb macho rats. I don't know if a comparison to humans has any validity, but the most intelligent of our species are not necessarily the ones reproducing the most (or in some cases at all). This is in spite of the fact that we are intelligent enough to understand logically what is necessary to propagate our genes. In terms of the long-term evolution of humans, intelligence doesn't seem to be one of the characteristics we are selecting for, for better or worse.

  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @04:33PM (#29967738) Homepage Journal

    if intelligence can be increased by something so simple as an increase in the expression of a single NMDA receptor subunit, why hasn't it already happened?

    It has, or you wouldn't be here :-)

  • Re:I for one (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ae1294 (1547521) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @04:41PM (#29967840) Journal

    Actually, I applaud you for using your user name!

    Why? What could possibly go wrong?

    If my karma ever drops below Excellent I will simply post a few messages saying how great the PS3 is or maybe a few about how the iPhone is so much better than any other phone, or I could just discuss how horrible Micro$oft and the Government are.

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