Saturday, September 02, 2006

Souls in genes

Researchers breed permanently “happy” mice

Aug. 24, 2006Courtesy McGill Universityand World Science staff

A new breed of permanently “cheerful” mouse is providing new hope for treatment of clinical depression, researchers say.
sci­en­tists stud­ied a gene called TREK-1, which can af­fect the flow of a brain chem­i­cal called ser­o­to­nin. This in turn in­flu­ences mood, sleep and sex­u­al­i­ty. By breed­ing mice with­out TREK-1, the re­searchers sa­id they cre­at­ed a de­pres­sion-resistant strain.

The find­ings ap­pear in the re­search jour­nal Na­ture Neu­ro­science this week.“De­pres­sion is a dev­as­tat­ing ill­ness, which af­fects a­round 10 per­cent of peo­ple at some point in their life,” sa­id Guy Debon­nel of McGill U­ni­ver­si­ty in Mont­re­al, Can­a­da, prin­ci­pal au­thor of the pa­per. Cur­rent treat­ments fail for a third of pa­tients, he added.Sci­en­tists al­so be­lieve mice can suf­fer moods a­kin to hu­man de­pres­sion, ev­i­denced by with­drawn and pas­sive be­hav­ior in the ro­dents. Some of the same brain chem­i­cals have been linked to both hu­man and ro­dent “de­pres­sion.”Debon­nel’s team tested the new­ly bred mice us­ing “be­hav­ioral, e­lec­tro­phys­io­log­i­cal and bio­chem­i­cal meas­ures known to gauge ‘de­pres­sion’ in an­i­mal­s,” he sa­id. “The re­sults re­al­ly sur­prised us. [They] acted as if they had been treated with an­tide­pres­sants for at least three week­s.” The re­search rep­re­sents the first time de­pres­sion has been e­lim­i­nat­ed by ge­net­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy­ing an or­gan­ism, he added. “The dis­cov­er­y of a link be­tween TREK-1 and de­pres­sion could ul­ti­mate­ly lead to the de­vel­op­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of an­ti­de­pres­sant drugs.”


I remember back in the day when people thought that moods and attitudes were related directly to soul qualities. I remember the day when you could look at a bright and shining personality and remark about how extraordinarily keen and well adapted that person is, as if the factors relating to that perky well-adaptedness were 100% related to personal life choices, up-bringing, outlook, angelic vs. demon posession or any number of metaphysical explanations. And now we learn that if we tweak a few amino acids here and there in a chain of code, we can make everyone a bright and shining soul- or a monster for that matter. Is there any room left for a soul?

The peculiar thing about the debate this question raises is that, regardless what your answer is- soul or no soul, we can ultimately attribute our entire cognitive and feeling experience to physical elements which we arguably have no control over.

On a personal note, when I reached the age of thirty, and decided that after 15 years of devoting my every waking minute and thought to the question of spirituality, to the search for meaning, to meditation, purpose, the edification of the soul, to studying the mind and the brain and science and people and intentions, and the stark reality of human nature - only to have to come to the conclusion that my entire life had been a lie, a deception, an empty fleeing from the pain of the brutally obvious; My entire pursuit of God, of transcendence, a soul, an immortal essence that I could call "real" and "eternal" and "true" collapsed only to be forced kicking and screaming with gut-wrenching reluctance to admit that my 30 years of existence provided no evidence whatsoever of any hint of free-will on my part, but just a dreamy sleep-walk through a hall of smoke and mirrors choosing at best between one illusion and another.

It's fascinating that the mice are conscious and feeling creatures with analogous nerve structures and behaviors to people, despite such tiny brains. They are neurologically geared to be capable of feeling severe torment and pain- little units of consciousness coralled in a lab for study, with no god to deliver them into the land of Canaan. It makes you wonder whose cage we're in and for what reason if not none.

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