Journal of Cognitive Enhancement

, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 388–396 | Cite as

Cognitive Enhancement through Genetic Editing: a New Frontier to Explore (and to Regulate)?

  • Andrea Lavazza
Original Article


Not too many years ago, the possibility of cognitive enhancement through genetic engineering interventions seemed to be not only very distant, but also a dead end. In few years the situation has changed: today we have available new generation of genetic editing techniques—in particular CRISPR-Cas9—which allows to cut and paste with precision into the coding sequence of bases of a single gene, yielding results that were previously unthinkable in terms of simplicity and applicative accuracy (science fiction excluded). On the other hand, recent studies have identified some genes that can play a very important role in controlling specific cognitive functions. In this article, in addition to accounting for these advances in research, I examine, from a neuroethical perspective, some emerging critical issues related to enhancement via genetic editing. First of all, I consider the safety of the practice. Secondly, I address other ethical issues, some of which seem to suggest that we need extreme caution before embarking on the path of genetic editing. Finally, I discuss the parents’ will to give their children better cognitive skills. In general, faced with the prospect of a radical and sudden change in cognitive endowments, the most pertinent course of action seems to be to identify the individual and social factors of human well-being that are most shared, and assess whether cognitive enhancement through genetic editing goes in that direction.


Neuroethics CRISPR Liberal eugenics Parental genetic shaping Biohacker 

The Possibilities Opened Up by New Technologies

Josiah Zayner was the first self-professed biohacker in the world who tried to modify his own genome using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique (Lee 2017). At the end of 2017, in Oakland, California, he injected into his muscles a solution containing a certain amount of his own cells in which the myostatin gene had been modified. Previous studies on animal models have shown that altering the expression of the gene encoding the protein in question removes the natural limit to muscle growth, which is usually regulated by myostatin (Mosher et al. 2007). Zayner’s goal was not to become a bodybuilder; it is more plausible to think that he sought to be remembered as a pioneer of genetic editing for the purpose of human enhancement. In any case, he has taken advantage of his acquired notoriety to publicize his start-up, which manufactures and markets genetic engineering kits that anyone can buy to modify microbes and yeasts through the CRISPR-Cas9 technique. A few months later, Zayner publicly regretted injecting himself with CRISPR-Cas 9 when he saw other people injecting themselves with new treatments on a live-stream. “I kind of blame myself. (...) I see myself as a scientist but also a social activist with some experiments I’ve done. (...) There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually”, Zayer said (Zhang 2018).

The new genetic editing technique allegedly allows even biologists with no particular skills to intervene on genes in an unprecedented way and promises to revolutionize the field of enhancement, although the goal may still seem to be far away. Non-clinical applications of the technique, which is still in its early application stages, seemed almost unthinkable (science fiction and bioethical concerns excluded) until Zayner himself broke the taboo. Genetic editing for “cosmetic” purposes seemed to recall a eugenic scenario, one that does not involve the suppression of individuals considered “flawed” or the sterilization of parents deemed “unworthy” to procreate, but where people or parents choose to change themselves or their children according to their own canons.

Zayner’s case, however, falls within what Habermas called “liberal eugenics”, that is, the individual choice to intervene on one’s own or one’s children’s genome, without the State imposing, prohibiting or interfering with that choice (Habermas 2003). The main case discussed by Habermas (and others) was that of cloning, which at that time had just proven to be feasible for mammals, and possibly that of embryonic selection. What we are dealing with today, though, is an entirely new scenario. It will now be potentially feasible to implement unprecedented genetic modifications, which may soon allow people to act on their genotype in order to modify all phenotypic aspects subject to positive or negative discrimination, from the color of one’s skin to height, from the tendency to obesity to intelligence. This concern has led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to strictly regulate clinical trials and to reiterate that the sale of kits to produce gene therapies for self-administration is against the law (Fda 2017). Obviously, this ban can easily be circumvented, as evidenced by Zayner’s case (Pearlman 2017).

Cognitive Enhancement Through Genetic Editing

Zayner acted on the myostatin gene because he hoped to improve his body performance. Instead, here I want to deal with the future prospects of cognitive enhancement. Thanks to a series of rapid scientific and technological advances, this idea can now be legitimately hypothesized. First of all, it has long been established that genes, with their variable expression, are the basis not only of inheritable quantitative traits but also of cognitive abilities (Plomin 1999). As a whole, cognitive functions (perception, attention, comprehension, memory, reasoning, coordination and control of motor outputs) are used to organize information, where information refers to any type of data/knowledge relevant to the individual.

Secondly, researchers have progressively refined techniques to intervene on gene expression, mainly by acting on the nucleotide sequences constituting an organism’s DNA. Today, the most advanced techniques are those that go under the name of genome editing (or gene editing) (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine 2017). These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. The most recent, fastest, cheapest, most accurate and most efficient method is known as CRISPR-Cas9.1

Thirdly, there are various methods to insert the modified genetic material into the organism of the individual to be treated. Gene therapy originally used viruses as vectors, which implied considerable risks and the possibility of error: in fact, even with the new generation of genetic editing, using a virus does not allow one to control the amount of Cas9 protein expressed and this is likely to favor the unwanted “cut and sew” of other genes. For cognitive enhancement, then, one also needs to overcome the blood-brain barrier to reach the neurons where the target genes are mainly expressed. Recently, however, considerable progress has been made in this direction.

For example, Lee and colleagues (Lee et al. 2018a) have demonstrated that “intracranial injection of CRISPR–Gold, a nonviral delivery vehicle for the CRISPR–Cas9 ribonucleoprotein, can edit genes in the brains of adult mice in multiple mouse models. CRISPR–Gold can deliver both Cas9 and Cpf1 ribonucleoproteins, and can edit all of the major cell types in the brain, including neurons, astrocytes and microglia, with undetectable levels of toxicity at the doses used”. This study is also important because researchers showed that “CRISPR–Gold designed to target the metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 (mGluR5) gene can efficiently reduce local mGluR5 levels in the striatum after an intracranial injection”. The effect of this intervention has been to rescue mice from the exaggerated repetitive behaviours caused by fragile X syndrome, a common single gene form of autism spectrum disorders.

This leads us to the fourth element, namely the identification of specific genes linked to cognitive functions. The idea of finding “the genes of ...” has been around for at least three decades, when the DNA began to unveil its secrets and we approached the complete decoding of the human genome. Now, it is plausible that single genes or small groups of interacting genes regulate physical characteristics or determine some (few) pathologies. Research is indeed moving in this direction. However, it has also been recently speculated that even complex behaviors are guided by the different expression of some genes, to the point that there has been talk about the “gene of homosexuality” or the “God gene” (cf Hamer 2004).

Today we know with greater certainty that neither sexual preferences nor religiosity depend on genes. The illusion of implementing a “switch” to influence certain behavioural tendencies has lasted very little. And this would seem to apply also to the main cognitive functions, complex brain processes that involve different areas and probably a cascade of neuronal activations, with the relative expression of many genes. Furthermore, today we are increasingly aware that the expression of genes depends on their interaction with the development and on the external environment of the individual, thanks to complex epigenetic mechanisms (Bonduriansky and Day 2018).

However, some recent and yet to be corroborated studies have shed some light on molecular mechanisms, related for example to memory and attention, which seem to be closely linked to a single gene (or to a small group of genes). Of course, underlying the expression of that gene there may still be other important causal elements, and other not yet identified genes may still play a role in that molecular mechanism. In general, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) allow us to assess if specific genetic locations are connected to specific traits. Thus one can identify genetic variants (single-nucleotide polymorphisms). In a study by Lam et al. (2017), 70 independent genomic loci associated with general cognitive ability were identified, implicating 350 genes underlying cognitive ability. But studies have identified so many genetic variants—for example, associated with how much schooling an individual completes (Lee et al. 2018b)—that it would make not feasible some form of gene editing. Also, the developed “polygenic score” turned out to be predictive of (only) 11% of the variation in educational attainment between individuals (Lee et al. 2018b).

Although with much caution, other more specific studies can be taken as examples of this strand of research. The first study aimed to investigate the case of SuperAgers, i.e. individuals who do not lose their memory and reasoning skills with age (Huentelman et al. 2018). On average, in healthy individuals, the progressive and inexorable aging of the brain already begins around age 45. And yet this does not seem to apply to some. Recent research has shown that their “higher memory” is associated with reduced cerebral atrophy and fewer pathological changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This “resistance” could be due to a genetic variation. The researchers sequenced the genomes of 56 SuperAgers, defined as individuals aged 80 or older who, in memory tests, scored as much as or higher than the average of adults aged between 50 and 65 (Huentelman et al. 2018). They then compared them with a control group of 22 people who got an average score instead. What was found is that SuperAgers presented changes in the gene MAP2K3. Inhibitors of MAP2K3 may represent a new therapeutic strategy to enhance cognitive abilities, according to the authors of the study. But, once demonstrated the key role of the MAP2K3 gene, one should deal with the radical perspective of intervening with genetic editing, not to mention all the ethical issues that I will discuss later.

The second recent study concerns the ability to efficiently remember the past and the ability to successfully complete several operations simultaneously (multitasking), skills that seem unable to coexist in the same subjects for reasons related to genetics (Scheggia et al. 2018). The researchers found that efficiency in multitasking is regulated by the COMT gene and that a variation of the gene, found in about 25% of the population, could lead to its hyperactivity with a consequent decrease in the multitasking capacity. On the other hand, this same variation improves long-term memory. The COMT gene is in fact an important regulator of the dopaminergic system and also of the endocannabinoid system, which are responsible for numerous metabolic functions in the nervous system, such as long-term memory and multitasking itself, whose control centers reside in the prefrontal cortex. A hyperfunctionality of long-term memory inhibits the fluid memory required for multitasking. In other words, being more efficient in long-term memory makes us less suitable for multitasking, with negative effects for everyday life.

The study seems to make it possible to distinguish between individuals with different cognitive abilities on a genetic basis. Now, again, it is too early to state that the COMT gene alone has such an important role in the modulation of complex functions such as memory and multitasking. However, this is a potentially interesting case for future scenarios of genetic editing, as there seems to be a trade-off between the two cognitive functions so that the choice to enhance one would mean penalizing the other (unless genetic editing interventions prove to be reversible, which has not yet been investigated enough).

Ethical Issues of Cognitive Enhancement Through Genetic Editing

The safety of new generation genetic editing is the first and ultimate point to consider when discussing its possible applications to cognitive enhancement, given that safety is a concern in regard to almost all forms of enhancement. The CRISPR-Cas9 technique and the variants under development are relatively easy to use, but are still limited as to the precision of the intervention locus; also, there is still no historical series of applications to show the reliability of such procedures. Recently, a study by Kosicki et al. (2018) has shown that CRISPR-Cas9 can cause the deletion of DNA fragments or the rearrangement of their position on the chromosomes, with possible negative repercussions. The problem—the researchers note—stems from the fact that the enzyme Cas9, driven by a specially designed RNA strand, is able to cut the DNA exactly at the desired point, but the rewinding of the DNA strand is entrusted to the genetic repair mechanisms of the cell, which are instead “generic”.

To the current state of knowledge, it seems reasonable to authorize experimental applications of genetic editing only on ill patients likely to pass away or on patients suffering from other serious handicaps (cf Reardon 2016; Ledford 2017). On the other hand, it would appear quite risky to make available interventions aimed at the cognitive enhancement of healthy individuals, or even of individuals with an IQ or intellectual performance far below average. In addition to the general safety issues, genetic editing interventions require extra caution due to the fact that they act permanently on a cascade of activations and complex processes, so that modifying the expression of one or more genes could cause unexpected and unwanted effects, sometimes difficult to tackle. Other risks are related to possible trade-offs between cognitive functions, as mentioned in the case of memory and multitasking, in which an individual might not adequately consider the consequences of an enhanced performance on the one side to the detriment of the other.

Furthermore, it should be noted that new generation genetic editing could be aimed both at intervening on the individual’s genotype to hopefully improve its expressed phenotype, and to modify an embryo or the very germline, thus introducing a mutation that will be transmitted to the offspring and to the following generations (if no other interventions are made to cancel that mutation) (cf Callaway 2018). The first type of intervention has fewer implications and will only raise minor safety concerns once the technique proves to be reliable. In the second case, instead, acting on the embryo or on the germline has much more significant implications, as we will see in section “Should Parents Cognitively Enhance Their children Through Genetic Editing?” dedicated to the genetic changes made by parents affecting their children, who cannot yet make decisions about their own genetic makeup.

The second issue has to do with the freedom of individuals and with potential forms of implicit social coercion. In the case of permanent cognitive enhancement, in fact, the latter could be more serious than in other forms of enhancement, given the likely competitive advantage (and the relative disadvantage for the non-enhanced) entailed by this technique. With regard to cognitive improvement, the use of these techniques could be very limited in a first phase, due to the safety reasons described above. Subsequently, however, a technique that would ensure a lasting and irreversible improvement would probably appear very appealing. At that stage, peer pressure in working or competitive environments in general could soon be strong enough to penalize those who do not wish to change their genetic makeup (Forlini and Racine 2009). In this vein, prohibitions to resort to forms of “genetic doping” could be introduced. However, bans of this type, not motivated by safety reasons, would limit people’s autonomy, and the latter today is usually prioritized over equality.

The third ethical issue that could come about due to a widespread recourse to genetic editing for cognitive enhancement is that of the (unfair) advantage with respect to fair competitions and equal opportunities in certain social contexts. The theme is particularly complex and cannot be dealt with in depth here. It is certainly true that the natural starting conditions are not fair to begin with, and that some individuals are disadvantaged in terms of cognitive resources because of their genetic makeup or because of a less fortunate family condition. But it is usually believed that radical interventions that do not involve a conscious effort are something that violates the bond of merit connected to the most important goals in life (Garasic and Lavazza 2015).

In this sense, one option would be to implement a Rawlsian principle for genetic editing, only allowing it for the most disadvantaged, namely increasing the cognitive endowments of those who are well below the population average, or increasing the cognitive endowments of those who hold functions that benefit the entire population (surgeons, politicians, etc.) (Lavazza 2016). One might even think that, once its safety and effectiveness have been ascertained, genetic editing should be strongly recommended (if not made mandatory) for those who aspire to occupy positions of great prestige within society, to ensure greater efficiency and better results (Santoni de Sio et al. 2014) Another strategy to limit situations of strong inequity could be to impose the disclosure of genetic editing interventions, which can be probably done through tests that are already available today (Garasic and Lavazza 2016).

Finally, a risk related to so-called liberal eugenics lies in possible composition effects, i.e. unexpected situations (mostly negative for society) that are the result of the aggregation of many free individual choices, none of which is positive or negative in itself (Lavazza 2015). In the case of genetic editing for cognitive enhancement, there could be many individuals who choose to improve a specific cognitive function to the detriment of others, with the consequence of having, for example, a society of people with a particularly good memory but with a lack of flexibility or inventiveness. This could lead to a certain conservatism and to an increase in conflicts, while there would be less creativity resources to advance knowledge and to face new social and environmental challenges. Single genetic editing interventions would not be harmful, but the composition effect would be detrimental to the group.

These are the main ethical issues at stake in cognitive enhancement and partly in other forms of enhancement as well. However, there are other questions to consider, which seem more typical of cognitive enhancement through genetic editing. We should certainly ask ourselves whether to resort to, recommend or allow these forms of rapid and lasting enhancement for single individuals and, possibly, also for their descendants. But we must also ask ourselves if we are prepared for genetic editing to spread through society as a whole. As Bess (2015, chap. 1) points out, when the enhancement concerns an individual, the ethical scenario is relatively simple. If it concerns many people, instead, we must exercise our moral imagination, because there is the risk of falling into the “Jetsons fallacy”. This term refers to the famous cartoon series where technology evolves rapidly and with very significant effects, but human beings remain more or less the same in their desires, beliefs, relationships, and feelings. In other words, according to the Jetsons fallacy, we will have futuristic houses, means of transport, drugs, jobs and entertainment, but we will always be the usual curious and distracted, quarrelsome and supportive, gossipy and childish Homo sapiens.

In reality, individuals who are strongly cognitively enhanced could also change their interests and life plans. Would not society become much more competitive and selective? Or would we finally understand how to solve many problems and overcome our weaknesses that are causing so many problems? Depending on the scenario, one should either prohibit and sanction genetic editing for purposes of cognitive enhancement, or implement incentives or obligations to spread it as much as possible.

On the other hand, some are already making liberal arguments to defend individual enhancement, ranging from the idea that personal autonomy should always be granted to the objection against the preservation of a society that is far from perfect (Agar 2004; Harris 2007; Savulescu 2009). In this vein, some have also proposed corrective actions to address the inevitable problems that would arise, such as direct State intervention in terms of research and funding, so as to avoid inequalities (cf Buchanan 2011). However, one may wonder whether scientific progress and the deriving technological applications are indeed unavoidable and whether they should be pursued at all costs, given that human beings and societies also—if not mainly—move forward thanks to cultural and political (and even spiritual) factors (The President’s Council on Bioethics 2003).

Risks and Potentialities of Cognitive Enhancement Through Genetic Editing

One objection that can be made against genetic editing for non-clinical uses, especially if applied to the germline, is that of “playing God”, with the argument that our limits constitute us and characterize us. The nature and givenness of our condition drive us to react and to form a character capable of enduring the drawbacks of existence (Sandel 2007). Furthermore, by modifying ourselves at will and effortlessly, we might create new scenarios in which people’s enhanced cognitive functioning would occur in an environment that hinders the use of the new skills acquired through genetic editing. For example, in a society in which a certain number of individuals were able to process information faster, the latter could feel uncomfortable in contexts constructed for “normal” individuals. This might lead not only to the separation between enhanced and non-enhanced individuals, but also to the formation of different social contexts for the use of the new cognitive skills. In short, there would be two separate worlds, something more serious than the usual forms of discrimination (cf. Savulescu 2006).

But the aspects described so far tend to be sidelined with respect to the progressive legitimization of the idea that one is entitled to follow one’s own reasonable desire of improvement. In this perspective, there are no features given to the individual that cannot be changed. From the standpoint of Darwinian evolution, nature is marked by chance and is far from perfect. The true obligation would therefore not be to respect one’s own limits, but to make people better, because exploiting our full potential is what gives meaning to our lives (Kamm 2005).

In general, at least in Western societies (but now also in many parts of the Eastern ones) the prevalent lifestyle embraces individualism, albeit in various forms, and competition, while individual failure is seen as something to be ashamed of (Ehrenberg 2016). Productivism is a culture that devalues one’s limits and rewards quantifiable performance, which is enhanced by the diffusion of devices that measure and keep track of many individual parameters, while stimulating and supporting training. These cultural factors could push people to resort to new forms of enhancement without fully considering all the consequences and risks involved. Moreover, in the context of a society dominated by productivism, calls for caution and critical positions on cognitive enhancement would find less attention and consideration. All of this is mirrored, in the field we are discussing, by the increase in improper uses of drugs to enhance attention, facilitate learning or improve performance at work.

In a recent survey (2017) conducted on tens of thousands of people in 15 countries, 14% said they had used smart drugs at least once in the previous 12 months, compared to 5% in 2015, with a growth of 9% in 2 years (Maier et al. 2018). The study targeted the use of substances normally prescribed in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as drugs aimed at treating sleep disorders for those who work night shifts, but also illegal stimulants such as cocaine. The highest usage rate was reported in the USA: in 2017, almost 30% of respondents said they had used smart drugs at least once in the previous 12 months, compared to 20% in 2015. But the largest increases were recorded in Europe: from 2015 to 2017, use in France rose from 3 to 16%, in the UK from 5 to 23%, in the Netherlands from 10 to 24%, in Ireland from 4 to 18%.

This indicates that the idea of chemical self-improvement is gaining ground, with increasing recourse to the illegal market to obtain forms of performance improvement that fall into the general category of cognitive doping. There is an increasing demand for performance enhancement due to molecules not specifically targeted for that purpose. Therefore, the prospect of permanent and irreversible enhancement through genetic editing could replace other forms of empowerment once it becomes sufficiently safe and economically accessible.

In this vein, the peculiarity of genetic editing to improve cognitive performance cannot be underestimated. When it comes to cognition, progress is usually cumulative and slow, both on an individual level and between generations, with rare exceptions. In other words, we know that the average intelligence measured by psychological tests has progressively increased thanks to processes of accumulation of knowledge. Genetic interventions, instead, promise rapid, relevant and lasting changes—which is why they are appealing—with consequences that today we cannot foresee and that should call for careful reflection before the technique becomes widespread.

First, there is the risk, already highlighted, of a collective improvement of functions that are not beneficial for society as a whole. Moreover, even for the individual, there may be the need to rely on skills other than the improved ones. This could push research to find forms of open-end flexibility, i.e. the possibility—thanks again to genetic editing or other techniques such as optogenetics—of changing the direction of the enhancement (for example, increasing or decreasing autobiographical memory depending on the events in question) or of obtaining other forms of enhancement that are in competition with the previous one (Bess 2015).

Secondly, and without exhausting other problematic aspects, the idea of always being at the peak of one’s cognitive performance thanks to technological devices or interventions hardly reconciles with the physiological ageing process to which all human beings are subject. Could this reduce tolerance and social inclusion towards those who experience a (normal or pathological) cognitive decline? Should adults and the elderly do everything they can to prevent this decline and try to maintain their peak performance in accordance with the prevailing social values? Would all this create pressure to undergo genetic editing? These questions are already relevant with regard to other forms of cognitive enhancement and could, in the near future, also apply to cognitive enhancement obtained through induced genetic mutations.

Should Parents Cognitively Enhance Their Children Through Genetic Editing?

If safe and effective genetic editing interventions were available to improve the cognitive performance of their children, ensuring them a better life or at least a life like that of the most advantaged individuals, many parents might consider enhancing their offspring. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the parents’ request to intervene on their children in embryo or in their early development phase, to favour them in the competition of life, is socially and ethically neutral—leaving the choice to the parents themselves—or whether should be either encouraged or opposed. These interventions would be very invasive and possibly irreversible in terms of their consequences on the offspring, and yet they would not have been consciously chosen by the children themselves.

One line of reflection stems from the consideration that being born with a given genetic profile influences one’s life, at least in part (although one’s specific genome does not strictly determine one’s cognitive performance, but there is always a variable margin within which the individual can cultivate and train their “natural” endowments). Given the variability of the cognitive performance of the population and that of the genome, it can be said that the variability caused by the selective exercise of cognitive functions is higher than that due to the genetic lottery. In any case, provided one can intervene safely and effectively, some argue that parents have a duty to improve their children, even for medically and morally neutral reasons, depending on the means available.

A principle that has become influential in the bioethical discussion is that formulated by Savulescu about procreative decision making: the so-called principle of Procreative Beneficence. According to it, “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information” (Savulescu 2001, p. 415). Many objections have been raised against this view. The main ones are based on the fact that parents may misjudge the best features for their children’s lives and that therefore it is preferable to act with caution, especially when it comes to genetic editing. Other objections refer to the children’s right not to be burdened with their parents’ expectations, as there is an asymmetric power relation in place by which parents may decide for their children that they should be particularly competitive in some areas over others.

And even choices aimed at non-competitive advantages, such as the idea of ensuring a good life thanks to a better cognitive ability, can be undermined by the fact that it would be the parents to choose what means are best suited for a certain life project—a choice that the children may not agree with, seeing it as a violation of their autonomy (Clayton 2006). Finally, some argue that the children’s enhancement in the embryonic stage in order to give them a competitive advantage is morally objectionable because by definition it means that other children will be born in an objectively disadvantaged position and will be unable to easily fill that gap. This would inevitably happen, unless everyone is enhanced, in which case the purpose of giving a competitive advantage would vanish. So, we would create a strong planned inequality that, at least socially, should be avoided (Brighouse and Swift 2006).

Obviously, even before we had technologically advanced tools, parents have always tried to raise their children by giving them and training them to specific skills through education and environmental enrichment understood in a broad sense. And these ways of raising children, depending on the parents’ means and place on the social ladder, have always created differences and inequalities. One can then ask whether it is morally more objectionable to genetically edit one’s children than to try to improve them thanks to environmental influences (Gheaus 2017). Agar, for example, has claimed that “if we are permitted to produce certain traits by modifying our children’s environments then we are also permitted to produce them by modifying their genomes” (Agar 2004, p. 113).

As mentioned, there is a strong initial asymmetry in the relationship between parents and children. The former can choose to start this relationship, while the latter cannot. Furthermore, the relationship is largely unbalanced so as to favour the parents, especially for natural reasons that cannot be neutralized. However, parental genetic shaping appears to be more objectionable than parental environmental shaping—says Gheaus (2017)—because the former increases the inequality at the entry point into the relationship, if the genetic enhancement is not aimed at treating a disorder or at avoiding a certain negative situation for the child.

The enhancement that occurs through education or with forms of environmental shaping is instead obtained within the relationship, and can take into account the feedback of the subject that is being enhanced, in different degrees and forms. Moreover, this type of enhancement takes place over time and not with an univocal and irreversible decision by the parents with no participation whatsoever of the child. Parental environmental shaping is also marked by a relational asymmetry, but one that is not as strong as that of parental genetic shaping; therefore, the latter appears to be morally more objectionable, concludes Gheaus. Finally, the objection about intentionally sought social inequalities is stronger in the case of parental genetic shaping, since it is immediate and an all-or-none phenomenon, unlike parental environmental shaping.

In reality, it could be argued that parents very often try to enhance the child for the well-being of the latter, even if they may make a wrong assessment or overestimate the appreciation that the child can have for the inclinations and values that the parents want to pass on to him or her (according to a common desire in human beings who procreate “to carry on living in their children” and to keep their family alive over time by transmitting some distinctive characteristics). If the parents misjudge or overestimate the appreciation that the child will have for their inclinations and values, they will translate these views into attempts to form the child in that particular way even through parental environmental shaping.

Secondly and more importantly, if the parents, as often happens, act sincerely and with good intentions for the well-being of their children, cognitively enhancing them in terms of better memory or attention skills, they will give them an important resource that the latter would otherwise probably only acquire with much effort and over a longer timeframe with education and training. The children could therefore complain to their parents if—on the contrary—they failed to do so, thereby depriving them of an advantage that is now lost for them as grown-ups.

Regardless of the extent of the asymmetry in the parent-child relationship, conferring a greater range of cognitive resources to one’s children could be seen as a gift of love, even if the children do not participate either in the choice or in the process leading to the acquisition of that greater range of resources, as in parental environmental shaping. In this case it could be said that it is morally more objectionable not to genetically enhance one’s children than doing so or choosing enhancement through education, environmental shaping and training. A discriminating factor would obviously be the possibility of obtaining genetic enhancement only in the early stages of development. If scientific progress provided the opportunity of genetic cognitive enhancement in adulthood as well as of reversible genetic modifications, the parent’s choice would no longer be so relevant and could even become ethically neutral.

A group of British experts has very recently cautiously endorsed genetic editing interventions on embryos to be implanted in the womb, defined as morally permissible in some cases. They have formulated two principles that take into consideration the welfare of the future person as well as social justice and solidarity. The first principle reads: “Gametes or embryos that have been subject to genome editing procedures (or that are derived from cells that have been subject to such procedures) should be used only where the procedure is carried out in a manner and for a purpose that is intended to secure the welfare of and is consistent with the welfare of a person who may be born as a consequence of treatment using those cells”. The second principle reads: “The use of gametes or embryos that have been subject to genome editing procedures (or that are derived from cells that have been subject to such procedures) should be permitted only in circumstances in which it cannot reasonably be expected to produce or exacerbate social division or the unmitigated marginalisation or disadvantage of groups within society” (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 2018, p. XVII).


Not too many years ago, the possibility of cognitive enhancement through genetic engineering interventions seemed to be not only very distant, but also a dead end, something not worthy of research and fraught with safety problems and probable ineffective. In fact, on the one hand, there was the difficulty of modifying genes, bringing the engineered sequences into the cell with all the associated risks; on the other hand, there was the conviction that every single cognitive function was controlled by such a high number of genes (and that the relative network was not known) that an enhancement intervention was not at all feasible.

In few years, the situation has changed: today we have available a new generation of genetic editing techniques, in particular CRISPR-Cas9, which allows to cut and paste with precision into the coding sequence of bases of a single gene, in order to obtain results that were previously unthinkable in terms of simplicity and applicative accuracy. On the other hand, some recent studies (which require further confirmations) have identified genes that can play a very important role in the control of specific cognitive functions.

These two elements, considered together, could pave the way for attempts at cognitive enhancement through genetic editing. In this article, in addition to accounting for these advances in research, I have examined, from a neuroethical perspective, some emerging critical issues of such a form of enhancement. First of all, one ought to consider the safety of the practice: presently, it does not seem that there are the conditions for non-clinical uses—i.e. excluding the treatment of serious and otherwise untreatable diseases—of new generation genetic editing. I have then considered other ethical issues, some of which seem to suggest that we need extreme wariness before embarking on the path of genetic editing. Finally, I have discussed the parents’ will to give their children better cognitive skills. Short of knock-down arguments, for now it seems that caution is the best attitude to adopt in relation to genetic editing.

In general, faced with the prospect of a radical and sudden change in cognitive endowments—which in any case will have an extension limit even if they will be enhanced with new tools—the most pertinent course of action seems to be to identify the individual and social factors of human well-being that are most shared, and assess whether cognitive enhancement through genetic editing goes in that direction. Obviously, there will never be a total consensus on the matter, but a reflective equilibrium inspired by rational discussion—one that takes into account long-term values and elements—may be the provisional starting point to decide if and how to explore and regulate the research and use of new means of human enhancement.


  1. 1.

    “CRISPR-Cas9 was adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria. The bacteria capture snippets of DNA from invading viruses and use them to create DNA segments known as CRISPR arrays. The CRISPR arrays allow the bacteria to “remember” the viruses (or closely related ones). If the viruses attack again, the bacteria produce RNA segments from the CRISPR arrays to target the viruses’ DNA. The bacteria then use Cas9 or a similar enzyme to cut the DNA apart, which disables the virus. The CRISPR-Cas9 system works similarly in the lab. Researchers create a small piece of RNA with a short “guide” sequence that attaches (binds) to a specific target sequence of DNA in a genome. The RNA also binds to the Cas9 enzyme. As in bacteria, the modified RNA is used to recognize the DNA sequence, and the Cas9 enzyme cuts the DNA at the targeted location. Although Cas9 is the enzyme that is used most often, other enzymes (for example Cpf1) can also be used. Once the DNA is cut, researchers use the cell’s own DNA repair machinery to add or delete pieces of genetic material, or to make changes to the DNA by replacing an existing segment with a customized DNA sequence” (Genetics Home Reference (NIH) 2018).


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centro Universitario InternazionaleArezzoItaly

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