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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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:24AM (#29963732)

    When they can scale it up from lawyers to humans, we might have something useful to talk about.

    • 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.

      • by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:20AM (#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.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)

          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.

          • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @12:15PM (#29965330)

            I've noticed that I have a very good semantic memory (memory of concepts), but a comparatively poor episodic memory (memory of events). I tend to remember patterns but not specific examples of those patterns.

            I've wondered if there's some sort of trade off between the two. Instead of memory performance and other aspects of intelligence being a matter of capacity (where more is strictly better), it could be more of a matter of allocation of capacity (where there may be trade offs).

      • by Trent Hawkins (1093109) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @01:50PM (#29966554)

        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.

        Evolution decided that when creature has to eating nothing but rotting crap all it's life, it's best that the creature not be able to ponder on the matter.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by interkin3tic (1469267)

      Since they haven't gotten it to work in humans yet, we'll probably forget about it before...OMG, did you hear the latest on Jon and Kate?!?

  • NIMH (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rik Sweeney (471717) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:25AM (#29963746) Homepage

    Mrs. Frisby [wikipedia.org] will be pleased...

  • Spooky (Score:2, Funny)

    by chebucto (992517) *

    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.

    • Re:Spooky (Score:5, Funny)

      by daveime (1253762) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:29AM (#29963800)

      Yeah, we'll all need to live longer so we can foil the plans of Pinky and the Brain.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rogerborg (306625)

      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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by HiThere (15173)

        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

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rastilin (752802)

      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 SnapShot (171582) *

        What is a piracetam?

    • by foobsr (693224)
      While I know that this sort of research is ultimately aimed at improving human life, ..

      Like in "The Pentagon (whoever, YMMV) sponsored a research program to evaluate the use of artificially improved mammals in the fight against terrorism"?

      CC.
  • by treczoks (64329) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:27AM (#29963778)

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

    • by tsstahl (812393)
      I went with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their leader is a rat formed in a lab...
      • by mishehu (712452)
        Well, can't believe I still remember this, but Splinter and the turtles were all exposed to radioactive waste... So he wasn't exactly smart because he was a lab rat. He actually was a pet of his master Yoshi, one of Japan's finest shadow warriors...
    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      Elenor?

  • Special upgrade pricing - 25% off with trade-in of your old rat.

  • 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?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by somersault (912633)

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

      • by ktappe (747125) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:58AM (#29964246)

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

        I'm glad there's not, because this really is a dangerous thing. If one of these rats escapes we will be in for some hurting. Rats are already rather smart--they know what traps are and how to avoid them, for example. Go live in a rat-infested portion of a city and then tell us again anyone objecting to this experiment is "paranoid".

        • by Gerafix (1028986) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:18AM (#29964508)
          The solution is easy, we just have to breed smarter cats and let them loose. What could possibly go wrong?
        • I've never even seen any rats outside of a petstore, sorry, let alone know of any "rat-infested" areas.. I've seen one live mouse and plenty of dead mice and voles caught by our cats over the years, but no rats.

          I still think it's stupid to let paranoia get in the way of scientific progress. Yes, if one of them escapes then we could have slightly smarter rats in some places. Oh noes..

          We've dealt with rat problems before. and we can do it again if necessary :P It's one of the things that scientific progress i

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Red Flayer (890720)

            We've dealt with rat problems before. and we can do it again if necessary

            You mean, we're constantly fighting a war against rats in urban and rural areas. The suburbs tend not to have rat problems (you get skunks, opossums, and raccoons, though).

            Do you know how much we spend in the US on rat remediation? And how much damage is caused by rats? Total economic cost of alien-species rats in the US is (a href="http://people.hws.edu/bshelley/Teaching/PimentelEtal00CostExotics.pdf">estimated to be $19 Billi

        • by russotto (537200) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:30AM (#29964716) Journal

          Go live in a rat-infested portion of a city and then tell us again anyone objecting to this experiment is "paranoid".

          It's not a real problem. These rats with their superior maze-following ability will be nerds among rats, and thus will not reproduce in the wild.

        • Lab rats, like pet fancy rats, are smaller and less aggressive than their wild cousins. They'd be much more likely to be killed by than bred with any wild rats they meet.

      • by fataugie (89032)

        Ever have a rat in your house (other than your brother in law)? I have. They are smart enough.
        Last thing I need is one that figures out how to change the locks when I'm at work.

        The last little bastard cost me over $1500 in damages the last time. I really don't need a smarter one, thanks anyway.

        • I just don't get why people are focusing on the whole rat part of the story rather than the cool part. I didn't see people complaining about the glow in the dark mice, or the ones with ears growing out of their backs etc. or any of the other horrible things we've done to rodents. As soon as we give them something that is actually beneficial, everyone starts whining..

          Probably exaggerating a bit there, but that's my style.

    • The world doesn't need this rat.
      But perhaps our kids will actually also have a better memory because of it. Then they can all still remember the history lessons they learned in school when they get to a position of power. And humanity will actually be able to learn from mistakes made in the past. And the world will be a better place. Free drinks for everyone.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Wargames (91725)
      Did you consider a smarter rat might learn some ratonal hygiene and stop carrying deseases? Rats would write more ratonal software.
      • Strangely enough, there's an i in rational.

        Unless you're an engineer; then it isn't strange at all: there's no j.

    • Don't be daft. They used rats because they're a standard experimental animal not because they want to make some kind of super rodents. Research it rats is often applicable in other species; like humans.

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

      This is just a stepping stone to create things that will change the world for the better..

      ...For instance, a monkey with four asses.

  • I will spring for the flowers, Charlie. Just don't act like a jerk.

  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:31AM (#29963840)

    Even the most forgetful person can be reminded of an event and recall it with vivid clarity. Alzheimer's sufferers can overcome some of the difficulties of the disease with a device like the Life Recorder [techcrunch.com].

    So when we say that someone's (or some rat's) memory is improved, what exactly is improved? Is it the recall ability? If so, does that mean that the rat is somehow able to logically filter out unnecessary information to reach the important memory? Or does it mean that the rat's memory has been structured in a better way? Is it only a spatial thing, or can it work for any type of information?

    As someone with a bad memory, I would be very interested in understanding how this actually works within the rat's brain.

    • Larger L2 cache.

      I say that somewhat jokingly, but picked L2 as an imperfect analogy. RAM or L3 could also work. But basically, it appears these rats can remember a larger short term list. Not the immediate data (wall in front of me / L1), not all data (everything learned to date / RAM), but a working set of reference data (maze directions / L2)

      Again, this is just my half joking analogy. Please feel to modify or disregard.

    • Hmmm... so the event is still there in our memory, we just can't locate it? So this is like increasing the size of the hash table it's indexed with, perhaps...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ikefox (1566973)
      Well, the NR2B gene is encoding for a very common and well known receptor within both rat and human brains - the NMDA receptor. These receptors have been the target of the majority of recent studies into working memory and synaptic plasticity, or so-called "long-term potentiation". Basically, the NMDA receptor is the most likely cause of memory reinforcement. The idea is that when two neurons fire simultaneously, the connection between them is strengthened for a long period of time. That is, the post-synap
  • by Xebikr (591462) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:33AM (#29963884)

    Activating a crucial brain receptor for just a fraction of a second longer produces a dramatic effect on memory

    So they overclocked the rats? Cool!

    • No, I think they added a bit or two to the serially-transmitted address size.

      They tripled the memory size, so I'm still trying to figure out whether this implies that our brains operate in base-3 or whether some of the newly-created address space is unaddressable for reasons yet unknown.

  • So what is next? No more gold fish memory jokes?!!!!
  • by tgibbs (83782) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:39AM (#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: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ae1294 (1547521)

      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.

      The downside is that now the Rats crave human brains...

    • by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:47AM (#29964082) Homepage

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

      Higher energy requirements would be a good bet.

      • Yeah, but that's the case pretty much every time you overclock...

      • by tgibbs (83782)

        Higher energy requirements would be a good bet.

        It's a possibility, but I don't think so. The receptors don't use a lot of energy. The baseline cost of maintaining the neurons won't change. So the main incremental cost will be the pump costs for repolarizing after action potentials. But it doesn't seem likely that overall firing is massively increased, or they'd probably be seizing.

    • If intelligence is a benefit, why aren't all animals already as smart as humans?

      You see... evolution does not work that way. It is not zero-sum. It is not itself intelligent. It is perfectly possible that such a mutation is entirely beneficial, but simply hadn't occurred naturally.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by steelfood (895457)

      To answer this question, I reference Idiocracy.

    • by debrain (29228) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @11:03AM (#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]

      • I hypothesize that the rats lack the ability to effectively dissipate heat from a highly active brain,

        That's probably a pretty poor hypothesis. Heat rejection depends in part on the surface area to volume ratio. It's easier to reject heat from something small than something big. In fact, small mammals have a hard time just keeping their temperatures UP.

        I'd guess it costs energy that could be used for reproduction or maturing faster or just getting away from predators. But that is just a wild guess, too.

      • by tgibbs (83782)

        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).

        If it were something complicated, like multiple specific mutations or introduction of a gene that the animal doesn't have to begin with, this is plausible. But this is merely increasing the expression of a gene that is already there, and there are multiple regulatory mechanisms, both genomic and postgenomic that control its abundance o

      • by ortholattice (175065) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @01:17PM (#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.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by RJBeery (956252)

      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?

      It HAS happened, but those affected (rats included) simply can't get laid to propagate the phenomenon...

      • by tgibbs (83782)

        It HAS happened, but those affected (rats included) simply can't get laid to propagate the phenomenon...

        I expect that you were joking, but I think that it is a serious possibility. Transgenic animals are bred in captivity. I wonder what their mating success would be in the wild.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bruce Perens (3872) *

      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 :-)

  • by nimbius (983462) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:39AM (#29963952) Homepage
    this has already been done at HLM Laboratories in sonoma, ca [theonion.com]
  • At 2:14 am on August 29th, NR2B+ A23, aka "Pinky", became self-aware. After a brief bout of tail chasing, coupled with a sudden realization, "Holy crap, I'm a f'ing rat." Pinky began to fear being shut down by his creators.

    And so it began....

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

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:47AM (#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 Garrett Fox (970174) on Tuesday November 03, 2009 @10:57AM (#29964232) Homepage
    About eight years ago I read about a line of experiments that measurably increased rodents' performance in a set of memory and learning tasks. I believe the genetic change involved the NMDA receptor, but a quick search doesn't turn up an obvious link to that.

    There was a report this September [scienceblogs.com] that gene therapy had been used to grant "full" color vision to colorblind monkeys, following on an earlier experiment that did the same thing to rodents. That is, the rodents were given three-color vision where they normally have two color receptor types. (Would that make them transrodents?) Apparently, the brain automatically adapts to having a new receptor type installed in the retina! And the same technique could be used on humans to grant us a fourth receptor type, maybe a UV receptor gotten from parrots or something. I'd volunteer to have this done to one eye. (The first comment on this article [blogspot.com] presents a dissenting view that just because the monkeys were able to distinguish colors in greater detail than before, that shouldn't be taken as proof that they "have full color vision". All the more reason to try it in a human!)

    The rodents could be in combination with cyborg cats though, as seen in this 1995 report [futurefeeder.com] of recognizable images read directly from a cat's visual cortex.
    • I'd personally be much more interested in infrared receptors...

      I hear cotton is nearly transparent in the infrared range.

  • Man, that's all we need, to succumb to a plague of genetically engineered rats.

  • Continued progress along these lines won't end well for us.
    Did we learn nothing from Deep Blue Sea [wikipedia.org]? (Or this: IntelliMouse [microsoft.com]?)
    I, for one, welcome <you know the rest...>
  • One of my scientist friends was on this team. We'd always go to the renaissance faires together -- she was always big into the art booths, always liked those renaissance period painters. Her work was on turtles though...

  • Somewhere a joke about the Stainless Steel Rat is waiting to appear, but I can't find it. Clearly I need some of that memory enhancement.

  • No good can come of this..

    "For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now for the first time - suddenly, shockingly, horribly - the balance of power had shifted."
    http://www.james-herbert.co.uk/rats.htm [james-herbert.co.uk]

Physician: One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well. -- Ambrose Bierce

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