It is clear from this story that humans have a lot to learn about the way genes work together to affect behaviour in sentient beings. American scientists wanted to use Crispr (gene-editing) to try and make Syrian hamsters more friendly. They thought that if they eliminated vasopressin activity “we would reduce both aggression and social communication – but the opposite happened”. Vasopressin is a regulatory hormone which shapes a variety of social behaviours including communication and aggression. They were very surprised at the results.
In order to reduce vasopressin activity, they deactivated a gene known as AVPRIA in a group of hamsters. This meant that they lacked a receptor that interacts with vasopressin in key regions of the brain. The scientists believed that the hamsters would be immune to the effects of the hormone and become friendlier. They got it badly wrong and the lead author of the study, Prof Elliott Albers of Georgia State University said: “This suggests a startling conclusion. We don’t understand this system as well as we thought we did. The counterintuitive findings tell us we need to start thinking about the actions of these receptors across entire circuits of the brain, not just in specific brain regions.”
It has been found that it is wrong to think that we can pinpoint specific effects from specific genes. Instead, large groups of genes frequently work together in concert. One gene may be implicated in a wide range of actions and biological processes.
Albers said that his team would carry on “developing gene-edited hamsters”. But he admitted that it wasn’t easy. He remarked that “it is important to understand the neuro circuitry involved in human social behaviour and our model has relevance for human health.”
He believes that the study of vasopressin in terms of gene-editing is important to “help identify potential new and more effective treatment strategies for a diverse group of neuropsychiatric disorders from autism to depression.”
On a wider issue, it is questionable in the minds of many that these sorts of experiments should take place at all. Animal testing is problematic at best. Do humans have the right to experiment on animals in the interests of their health and welfare? A big philosophical question which challenges the best minds. Personally, I’m against it. And I know that would be detrimental human health and welfare but so be it in my mind.
Below are some more pages on animal testing.