Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Flowers for Algernon

Well, at least one flower.
In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) reported today that they had successfully reversed mental retardation in mice, just as scientists did in the classic 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. ... Now M.I.T. scientists report in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA that they ameliorated brain damage in mice caused by a genetic disorder known as fragile X syndrome by blocking an enzyme involved in cellular development.

Fragile X affects one in 4,000 boys and one in 6,000 girls. It is caused by a mutation in the fragile x mental retardation 1 gene (FMR1)—located on the X sex chromosome— that results in the loss of the fragile x mental retardation protein (FMRP). The resulting illness is characterized by hyperactivity, attention deficit, repetitive behavior, anxiety and cognitive difficulties ranging from learning disability to mental retardation.

The study points the way toward developing a gene therapy that would reverse fragile X mental retardation as soon as it is diagnosed in babies giving them the promise of a normal life. Many on the religious right hate genetic research and treatments (unless they can prevent gayness, which they also insist is learned, not genetic). Much of their opposition comes from an ick factor at tinkering with the way we were made. The cure for this discomfort is to learn more. Unfortunately, these same people have an instinctive suspicion of learning. In the long run, I suspect hope will win out over both ick and suspicion.

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