Is Mindfulness Meditation worth it?

Emma Pallen

In the past, the word meditation was associated with Tibetan monks chanting on isolated
mountaintops. But nowadays, it seems that everyone and their cat are espousing the benefits of
the mindfulness-based practice. However, instead of aiming to achieve spiritual enlightenment,
modern meditation is far more concerned with the health benefits, both mental and physical.
With claims such as decreased anxiety and depression, boosted immune systems and even
being linked to a longer life span, it all sounds too good to be true. Is this all just pseudo-science
mumbo-jumbo, or have the Tibetan monks really been sitting on a panacea for human health
problems all this time?
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on the present moment, instead of
deliberating over past failures, or worrying about future problems. It makes sense that
something like this could improve mental health, especially in modern Western society, where
there are so many competing calls for our attention. Numerous studies have found that this
process of stopping and refocusing your attention on the present, whether that’s through
breathing, focusing on bodily sensations or simply by mindfully enjoying the food you’re eating,
leads to decreased rumination and worry. This in turn is linked to decreased anxiety and
depression.

Buddhist_monk_in_Khao_Luang-Sukhothai

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

As well as being beneficial for our mental wellbeing, mindfulness has been shown to have
numerous physical health benefits as well. Recently, researchers at Coventry University
investigated the effects of mind-body interventions on gene activity. Remarkably, they found that
for participants who practiced mind-body interventions such as mindfulness, gene activity was
reduced in genes related to inflammation. This is the opposite effect of chronic stress. Not only
does this reinforce the notion that mindfulness reduces stress, it also suggests that practicing
mind-body interventions may even reduce the risk of physical inflammation-related disorders
such as arthritis and asthma.
Practicing mindfulness meditation will not only lead you to a happier and healthier life, it may
also lead you toward a longer one. Researchers at the University of California showed that
participants who had attended a three-month meditation retreat had greater levels of an enzyme
that builds up telomeres than a control group. Telomeres are regions of DNA at the end of
chromosomes that get shorter every time a cell divides. The length of telomeres is related to
ageing and longevity, so it appears that mindfulness could be linked to a longer life span.
Clearly, meditation has its benefits. But, like many things that seem too good to be true, it may
also have a dark side. For some people, instead of leading to peace and enlightenment,
mindfulness meditation can lead to panic, depression or even psychosis. According to a study
conducted by David Shapiro at the University of California, 7% of people who have tried
mindfulness meditation reported anxiety, depression, pain, or panic. There is little published
research on these potential negative effects of mindfulness, perhaps because of its ‘trending’
status at the moment, publication bias towards studies with positive results, or simply because
those who experience these negative effects simply stop with practice and don’t report it.

 

However, there are some potential explanations as to why some people have such negative
experiences. Meditation involves sitting with and accepting your own thoughts and feelings,
positive or negative. This can be sometimes difficult for even mentally healthy people, so for
people who are already suffering with poor mental health or negative feelings, this could
potentially make things worse. Similarly, for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
mindfulness can be difficult as traumatic memories can rise to the surface.
Nonetheless, the potential negative effects of mindfulness need not put us off. It may simply be
a case of weighing up the risks versus the rewards. Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, Floridan
Ruths, a mindfulness researcher and a practicing psychologist, compared the cost-benefit
calculations of meditation to how we think about exercise. “If we exercise, we live longer, we’re
slimmer, we’ve got less risk of dementia, we’re happier and less anxious,” he said. “People don’t
talk about the fact that when you exercise, you are at a natural risk of injuring yourself.” And as
with exercise, some people are unable to exercise due to a pre-existing condition, or may have
a higher risk of injury.
Another potential explanation as to why some people have negative experiences meditating is
due to poor practice, whether that’

Bangalore_Monument

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

s down to a lack of information on the correct ways to
meditate or due to a poor teacher. Indeed, unlike other forms of therapy such as cognitive
behavioral therapy (CBT), there is no professionally accredited training for mindfulness
teachers, and anyone can call themselves a mindfulness coach. This may have led to the
‘pseudo-science’ perception of mindfulness. Additionally, many studies that have found positive
effects of mindfulness only compared the effects of mindfulness to ‘treatment as usual’ (TAU),
such as seeing a GP, or to waiting list controls. This makes it unclear as to whether the positive
effects of mindfulness are simply due to placebo, spending more time with a therapist and
becoming more aware of emotions, or whether there is indeed an ‘active component’ of
mindfulness that specifically causes the observed benefits.
So, while it seems like mindfulness meditation does have positive effects, a lot more research
needs to be done. It is still unclear as to how long lasting the effects of mindfulness are, and
clearly, not everyone will benefit. It is also unclear as to the mechanism of action of mindfulness
and how it works in comparison to other forms of therapy such as CBT or talking therapy.
Obviously, what mindfulness does have is that is quick and cheap, and can be done by anyone
at any time. Also, unlike other forms of therapy that require a diagnosis before being able to be
accessed on the NHS, mindfulness can also be done to ‘maintain’ mental health, hopefully
avoiding the necessity of using other mental health services.

Brain Altering Parasites

toxoplasma_gondii

Jonathan Cooke

Fans of The Last of Us might be familiar with brain-altering parasites. These little critters and fungi are slowly creeping into the popular imagination thanks in part to media using them as the instigator of the ever-popular zombie apocalypse genre. The ‘bad guy’ of choice in The Last of Us is the parasite Cordyceps; a fungus that is represented by multiple species which ‘zombify’ their hosts, turning them into vessels for their reproduction.

Fortunately for you, Cordyceps; or more precisely Ophiocordyceps only prey on tiny insects found on the forest floor. In fact, they are quite an effective pest control, helping to keep insect populations in check.

Generally, whether or not the parasite kills their host, it will manipulate the host into a situation that is more advantageous for the parasite. For instance, if the current host is merely an intermediary for the parasite can reach their final host they will manipulate the current host’s behaviour to make it more likely they will come into contact with the final host.

Such parasites include the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii; which infect rodents, but reproduce in cats, alter the behaviour of their rodent hosts. Several behavioural experiments have found that rats infected by the parasite are much more likely to take risks than their non-infected counter-parts. This leaves them more susceptible to eaten by their feline predators, thereby continuing the parasites lifecycle.

These behavioural changes are usually brought about by manipulating the hosts brain chemistry, either increasing or decreasing the brains response to signals it is receiving. In the case of the rodents, T.gondii ‘makes’ encourages risk-taking behaviour by ignoring environmental stimuli that work to make them dive for cover, such as the scent of cats. In several experiments that exposed rats to the smell of various different organisms, rats infected with T.gondii tended to frequent areas that smelled of cats and were not scared of cats when they were in the area. This is part of the parasite’s ‘extended phenotype’; where the behaviour of the host changes to maximise the survival chances of the parasites genes.

Again and again these manipulations have been observed in the animal kingdom (although for the most part the actual mechanisms are not fully understood, I should know, I wrote my dissertation on it) but what if they do affect humans?

Are humans manipulated in the same way that others are, to benefit those organisms that are so much smaller than us?

Humans are parasitized by many different organisms, tapeworms being a well-known example. However, most parasites we know steal nutrients from the food we eat, or feed off us directly, like ticks. In both cases, they don’t kill us, and don’t need to do something as energy consuming as manipulating their host’s behaviour.

Manipulating your host’s behaviour typically indicates that you want your host to move somewhere or do something that would be out of the ordinary for them; but is advantageous for you as the parasite, e.g. in the case with Cordyceps, which want their spores to be better distributed, or you want your host to be eaten, such as with T.gondii.

Neither of those strategies would be viable in humans. We don’t tend to get eaten by other organisms until we die naturally and unless the parasite only breeds around beach resorts in Tenerife, there’s not much point in changing our behaviour.

So, what if it’s accidental? What if we get infected by something were not supposed to? How might a parasite, not realising its reached a reproductive dead-end, affect us? Well ever since humanity has been looking after our feline friends we’ve run the risk of accidental infection by T.gondii, although no one is quite clear as what this infection might do to us. Infection rates vary widely across the country and for the vast majority of the population infection is completely asymptomatic, though infection can also trigger toxoplasmosis which can have lethal consequences.

Some observational evidence from studies, seem to suggest that infection has a demonstrable effect on the behaviour of those who have picked up the parasite, although the consequences do differ between males and females. Women seemingly become more intelligent, affectionate, and more likely to follow rules, whilst men tend to mellow out, becoming more loyal and mild-tempered when compared against other males.

The only trait that those who are infected share across both genders is a higher level of neuroticism, being more likely to blame themselves for problems in their lives and to have a high sense of insecurity.

However, these correlations are just that – correlations. No work has been done to prove that T.gondii is what is causing these behavioural changes in people – if they are changes at all.

Perhaps the reverse is happening; those of us with these traits are more prone to getting infected. Very little work – for obvious ethical reasons – has been done to see T.gondii interacts with the human body. However, perhaps we can take small pleasure in the idea that it is going to be convincing us to get eaten by lions anytime soon.

Behaviour altering parasites is a new, emerging field in biology; its effects are rarely documented and even more rarely understood in how they work. For many years, however, there has been a fundamental view that humans are not affected by such parasites and that we are apart from the animal kingdom in this regard.

Perhaps it’s time we address this view?

The Science of Sexuality

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Sintija Jurkevica and Jonathan James

The struggle of understanding sexuality begins to muddle even before sexual orientation can be defined. Some sources describe it as a person’s capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. However, in general, sexual orientation or preference, can be defined as “the sex (biological aspects of maleness and femaleness) of those whom one feels romantically and sexually attracted to”, where one’s sexual orientation may be categorised as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, queer, pansexual, asexual or among others. However, categorisation of identifiable preferences is more nuanced than it appears; whilst some research may describe orientation as discrete categories, substantial evidence backs up the existence of a sexual continuum or spectrum.

But how does one develop a sexual preference? This riddle is a classic psychological argument of nature versus nurture: do the genes, the environment, or a mixture of them both influence one’s sexual attraction to others? This is obviously an ongoing debate and a matter of significantly more research. A recent September publication, composed by a psychology researcher Michael Bailey and his colleagues in the peer-reviewed journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, has been created with the intention of objectively reviewing previous scientific research on sexual orientation to draw impartial conclusions on the topic, without preconceptions of scientific biases and political influences.

Bailey’s review paper concluded that the non-social causes, such as the individual’s genetic make-up, play a larger role than environmental influences in establishment of one’s sexuality. The evidence, supporting such a claim, includes the genetic influences in twin studies and unchanged sexual orientation of infant boys after they are surgically or socially “converted” into girls. Bailey and colleagues also argue against the commonly assumed environmental causes of homosexuality to be weak and distorted in comparison to alternative explanations.

Various genetic hypotheses had been proposed to explain differences in sexuality. In several studies, it was found that a several different genetic markers (i.e. genetic elements) were more likely to be found in gay men in comparison to their straight counterparts. When this news was first published, it caused an outpouring in the media of the discovery of the so called ‘gay gene’, but the media failed to report one significant factor – genetic influences themselves cannot be used to determine predisposition to a trait. In other words, simply having a genetic element doesn’t automatically result in these individual’s sexual orientation. To make matters more complicated, scientists were unable to reproduce these findings in women for same sex attraction, suggesting that sexual orientation is a lot more complex than a few genetic differences.

Other scientists have conducted studies considering the seemingly well establish theory that each additional older brother increases the odds of a male being gay by approximately 33%, with something like 1 in 7 gay males holding their sexual orientation because of having older male siblings. These findings have been controversial, not least because there are several scientific studies that support these proposals, and several that have not found a link.

One attempt to explain this apparent causation is through the maternal immune response. Male fetuses produce H-Y antigens (small proteins) that play a role in sexual development in the womb (i.e. the development of male sex organs). In response to these antigens, the mother will sometimes produce an immune response, which gets stronger with each successive male fetus, resulting in decreased activity of these antigens in later males. One suggestion is that this results in less ‘mascularization’ of the male brain, resulting in the development of same sex attraction. The major flaw with this explanation is simple – the occurrence of the mother’s immune response is significantly lower than the prevalence of homosexuality, suggesting it cannot be the major cause.

The truth of the matter is, despite several attempts to better understand the genetics behind human sexual orientation, scientist know very little about what causes it, or even the true significance of any environmental factors. As Bailey concludes in his paper however, “Sexual orientation is an important human trait, and we should study it without fear, and without political constraint,” Bailey argues. “The more controversial a topic, the more we should invest in acquiring unbiased knowledge and science is the best way to acquire unbiased knowledge.” Therefore, we should look forward to developing a better understanding in the future, in the hope that a better understanding of ourselves, results in a better understanding of each other.

 

 

The Science of Jet Lag

airplaneJonathan James

It’s only been in the last few decades that long distance travel has become commonplace in our lives. With it has come the phenomenon of desynchronosis, a combination of symptoms including headaches, fatigue, and loss of concentration. This is better known as Jet Lag. Resulting from the disruption of our bodies circadian rhythms –  the collection of processes that ensure that all our body functions follow a roughly 24-hour clock, Jet Lag can make travelling on holiday or to a business meeting on the other side of the world a nightmare for even the most seasoned traveler. But what exactly is it about travelling across multiple time zones that so badly disrupts our systems, and are there ways to minimise its impact?

What is Jet Lag?

Our bodies internal clocks are regulated by a hormone,melatonin, in an area of the brain called the pineal gland. As night time approaches, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, which has lots of effects on our body – the most obvious being that we become tired, triggering us to sleep. This system relies on us being exposed to different light levels during the day – as light levels begin to fall in the early evening, different genes are switched on or off, getting us ready for sleep. This is all overseen by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which scientists refer to as the ‘master clock.’

Travelling across multiple time zones completely messes up the regular system going on in our brains by either extending or reducing the amount of time we are exposed to daylight. As an example, a Flight from London to New York can take around eight hours. Because you are flying ‘backwards’ against time zones, you’ll arrive in the United States only three or four hours later than you left London, effectively creating a time ‘lag’ of over four hours.

For longer flights, these delays become even more significant, but it is ‘forward’ travel that has the greatest impact. As you travel eastward, you are shortening your day, resulting in your brain having to process the idea that it must sleep much sooner than it would normally have to. This results in a lot of internal ‘confusion’ – processes regulating everything from sleeping patterns to digestion are thrown out of kilter, resulting in the typical symptoms we associate with Jet Lag.

How might we minimise its effects?

Research carried out by a group of scientists at the Nuffield Laboratory in Oxford in mice has shown that a protein, SIK1 plays a role as a kind of natural brake mechanism in the mouse, responding to light exposure and stopping the mouse’s body clock. By inactivating this protein, the scientists could produce mice which can adjust to changes in time zones much quicker. Work done by these scientists, as well as research carried out in Japan, has opened the door to the idea of a jet lag ‘cure’ – a medication able to block a similar protein found in humans. However, with much of their work in the experimental stage, the idea of a wonder cure to jet lag is some way off.

Is it possible that there might be other, more easily adopted ways to minimise the effects of Jet Lag? One way might be to take melatonin orally in small quantities – work at Rush University Chicago has been exploring the impact of giving small doses (0.5milligrams) along with exposure to ‘light boxes.’ They’ve demonstrated remarkable results, resetting subject’s circadian rhythms and minimising the impact of Jet Lag. Since then, there’s been an explosion in mobile apps and programmes such as Entrain, designed to help travelers adjust to crossing time zones by telling them when to expose themselves to bright light. Many of these programs have had limited testing, so it’s good to be wary of so called ‘miracle cures.’

In retrospect,  Jet Lag is unavoidable, with the advent of long distance travel in the last few decades meaning we’ve had little time to evolve to the challenge, and whilst we might try to avoid light exposure at certain times and try to maintain a normal sleep cycle, overcoming our own natural body clocks is a pretty big ask all the same.

Super-senses in the Animal Kingdom

Sophia Akiva

Some hold the belief that humans were made in the image of an omnipotent being, while others consider us to have adapted through evolution to become the dominant species on our planet. The debate between these views is best left for another time, but for a species that has no natural predators, can survive on all seven continents and has built technologically advanced civilisations, our sense of superiority over our four-legged cousins is well justified. Yet still we yearn for more, imagining superheroes with inhuman abilities and senses, taking inspiration from the very creatures we consider to be less than us. Our brains may be better developed when it comes to reason and logic, and that in itself can be considered a superpower, but the animal kingdom is filled with creatures that have brilliant powers of their own.

First of all, let us consider eyesight. Human vision is very advanced and adapted perfectly to the peak wavelength of sunlight we receive through the atmosphere, however as soon as the Sun sets we are left at a disadvantage. Animals like tarsiers on the other hand, are not. These tiny adorable creatures are also deadly predators, being the only primates to be fully carnivorous, and responsible for this are their super-sensitive eyes.

Unlike other nocturnal creatures, tarsiers do not have a reflective layer behind their retinas and so are unable to bounce faint light through them twice in order to absorb it. To compensate for this, their eyes have grown to colossal proportions relative to their small body size, with each eye being approximately the same size as the brain, which itself has grown large in areas responsible for processing all the visual information thus received. As well as turning these little mammals into perfect hunters, their incredible sight is also used to traverse the canopies in the night and to defend against predators, who are often attacked by one or more groups of tarsiers upon being detected.

The animal most famous for having incredibly powerful eyesight is the eagle. Not only can they see much further than a human but the images their brain interprets are of higher resolution due to a greater number of light-sensing cone cells within the retina. The range of light frequencies they can detect extend beyond visible light and into the ultraviolet, an ability that is also shared by a completely different creature, the mantis shrimp. This crustacean can show off an even more impressive eyesight than its feathered peer, with up to 16 visual pigments compared to five in the eagle and our own measly three.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

Like the two animals mentioned above, the mantis shrimp also uses its superhuman power to hunt down prey but is different in having the additional ability to identify the polarisation of light it detects through eye movements and distribution of cones. But it doesn’t end there, with their survival resting solely on their vision, these creatures have developed a way to insure it. This comes in the form of binocular vision, which is necessary for many predators, present independently in each eye of the mantis shrimp! So if they ever lose an eye, their depth perception would remain uninhibited. With so many processes going on within the eyes at the same time, the information has to be analysed by the eye itself before being transferred to the brain.

Let us now move onto the super sense of touch, which brings with it an introduction to another majestic predator of the animal kingdom, the star-nosed mole. This mammal is often rudely listed as one of the ugliest animals on Earth due to the tentacles extending from its snout, which are densely packed with sensory receptors and allow it to feel the movement of its prey. This specially adapted snout serves a second purpose of keeping soil from entering the mole’s airways as it burrows through its network of underground tunnels. This habitat has driven the development of such superb sensitivity in one sense, yet has caused the mole to lose almost complete use of another, leaving these animals practically blind.

Another animal  that appears to have sacrificed one sense to become the master of another is the snake, however their deafness in a long standing misconception. Although they do not possess sound detectors outside of their body, they are still able to process auditory information from the vibrations they pick up from the ground. This is the same mechanism they use to process their own super sense of touch. Snakes are able to differentiate the vibrations passing into their skeleton from the ground as either sound or mechanical and so the signals are passed through different sensory organs and processed by different parts of the brain. But the magnificence of the serpent doesn’t end there, their sense of taste is also superhuman. The famous forked tongue of the snake not only allows the animal to detect its prey, but also to determine the direction from which it is coming.

The animals discussed here are just a few examples of the vast variety of fascinating creatures that possess incredible sensory abilities, many of which are still currently being researched. We humans are not without our own merits. We may not be able to spot a rabbit from two miles away but we are the only species on Earth to have gazed upon the surface of Pluto – so perhaps our intelligence really is a superpower after all.

A Chance at Salvation

Sophia Akiva

Climate change is a scientific problem that is often erroneously portrayed as a matter of personal opinion. What remains of utmost importance is that the people responsible for making global decisions on the issues of climate change are well informed about the effects it will have on our world. Are the changes to the environment truly caused by human activity over the past three centuries, or will we be wasting our efforts improving the planet for nothing? Does an increase in temperature spell the end of days for humanity, or can we find a way to adapt to our new world? In the end, the key question we must address is can climate change be avoided?

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An increase in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide was detected and correlated with a rise in temperature as early as mid-1970s. The conclusion made was that human activity is the driving force for this change and over the decades that followed, enough evidence has been collected to make this an irrefutable fact. Analysis of the available data was carried out and several proposals for long and short term solutions were drawn up through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Yet nothing changed. The levels of carbon dioxide continued to rise. As did global temperatures. The proposals rightly took care to consider political and economic feasibility, however the focus of the industries contributing most to the emissions remained centred on financial agenda, leaving them reluctant to explore alternative sources of energy. This problem remains significant even today, and will continue to play a role in future developments.

The aim has been to keep average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Evidence suggests that such a seemingly small change would result in catastrophic alterations to weather patterns, from droughts on one side of the world, to floods on the other. Temperature rise has become a concept to be feared, an omen of disasters to come, but when considering the geological history of the Earth, we find ourselves in an ice age. Average global temperature has been as much as ten degrees higher in the past. Can this be taken as proof that what we are experiencing is a natural fluctuation of the world? Can we wash our hands of all blame?

So let’s say that temperature has risen by 2 degrees. Weather patterns have begun to show instability. Ecosystems have started to collapse. What effect will this have on humans? Several species have gone unchanged for millennia, despite the geological restructuring of the Earth and the changes in its atmosphere. Cyanobacteria have not only survived for several billion years but have also played a key role in altering the very chemistry of our world, producing the oxygen we need to survive. Surely a species that stepped foot on the Moon and produced nuclear fusion could survive a slight change in our environment? Yet we humans are a fragile breed. In developing our brains, we have lost our natural defences. We have frozen to death in the snowy mountaintops and died from overheating in desert planes. Even in its current state, our host planet can find innumerable ways to kill us. So perhaps a change in climate will not affect most species we share the Earth with – perhaps cyanobacteria will live on for another billion years but the ones most likely to be exterminated are the big brained apes responsible for causing this change in the first place.

Yet the technology that can come from these big brains may deliver us from such tragedy. We have developed ways to survive in the harshest of environments, to build shelter and produce food despite the geological obstacles. With advancements in irrigation we can harvest crops from formerly deserted land and alter the genetic makeup of these crops to make agriculture more efficient. We have even begun to atone for deforestation by developing vertical forests.

The effects of humanity on the planet may be so profound that some propose a new epoch has begun (The Anthropocene), which brings to light the changes we’ve made to the atmosphere, ecology, and composition of the Earth. If we have any hope of reducing these changes, a global collaboration requires immediate and decisive action.  Yet this will become increasingly difficult to arrive at as competition for land and depleting resources becomes more desperate.

We can no longer deny that the world is changing by our hand. The results may be irreversible and have already severed some of the fragile fibres of life holding our intricate ecosystems together. There is a lot we can do, both individually and collaboratively, to halt the oncoming transformation but it is unlikely that we can avert it entirely. The wheels of change are in motion and the reluctance to acknowledge this among world leaders will only lead to acceleration. We will be required to find ways to survive in this transforming world, to adapt and bear the changes. I have full faith that our innovative minds will carry us through.

The Future of Genome Editing: Utopia or Dystopia?

Marina Sanz Orell

It seems that, once again, we find ourselves at a point in history where reality begins to imitate fiction. We’ve seen countless examples of this during recent years, from gadgets that seem taken out of Doctor Who to space travelling projects that bring us closer to Star Trek.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

In this case, the movie that comes to mind is Gattaca, a 1997 science fiction classic that depicts a dystopian world where some people are genetically modified in the womb and ‘optimised’ – given superior abilities and all-round health.

The film shows how the use of this practice changes society, because humans who have been optimised are treated as superior while the unmodified humans are underprivileged. While the plot of the movie is a bit more complicated than that, it’s interesting how it portrays the potential consequences of genome editing becoming legal and common practice.

Genome editing is a complex technique that uses a system called CRISPR in combination with a protein called Cas9 to alter a specific (defective) gene from a section of DNA by cutting it out or replacing it with a ‘healthy’ gene. It’s a precise process that allows scientists to target a specific allele and by modifying it, change the function it corresponds to.

The possibilities are endless: it could cure genetic disorders from albinism to the deadly Tay-Sachs disease. It could mean the end of cancer or the beginning of an eternally young-looking society. However, although its potential could be boundless so could its capacity for harm. 

In principle, it sounds like an ideal solution. Imagine you’re about to have a child, and that besides all the stresses and doubts that come with becoming a parent you have the added worry that in your DNA, there’s a gene that could threaten your offspring with blindness.

There’s a chance that your child could inherit that gene and be born blind but you have no way to know or to stop it. But what if you did? What if you could edit their genes and make this risk disappear, not only for your child but for any of their future descendants as well?

While you’re at it, why not make sure that their heart is strong and their respiratory system faultless? And if you’re doing all that, you might as well add a sprinkle of intelligence and a promising athletic disposition, and make their eyes blue and their hair blonde. Suddenly this is no longer about fixing a disability, but about designing tailor-made babies.

The concern is, essentially, that once we’ve crossed the line of making it possible to modify an embryo’s DNA, even with the best intentions and a clear health-focused purpose, it then becomes hard to draw a new line to define when gene editing should or shouldn’t be allowed.

Besides the possibility of this technique being exploited for frivolous cosmetic reasons (reasons that arguably don’t justify the permanent and far-reaching alteration of the entire gene pool), there are so many social repercussions of legalizing gene editing and opening that door.

Considering the possibility of a Government – one that has probably watched too many Marvel movies – abusing this science to create an army of ‘superhumans’ with extraordinary abilities to try to take over the world, sounds ridiculous. That is until you remember North Korea and their general political climate, for example.

Perhaps the consequences will be a world dominated by eugenics where the difference between classes and economic freedom becomes impossible to bridge. Where the privileged are literally ‘genetically superior’ and the underprivileged are locked in a vicious circle of not being able to access gene editing and so remain permanently at the bottom of the food chain.

This would result in a world similar to that which Gattaca suggested, plagued by inequality and discrimination, and also a worrying loss of values. The film portrays how the characters that have a genetic advantage lack perseverance, modesty, the will to improve and the will to fight that comes from struggling in life; something they’ve never experienced.

Behind the endless ethical, social, and even philosophical ramifications of gene editing lay the undeniable scientific and medical advantages of this fast-growing field. However, even from a scientific, optimistic perspective, it is still unknown what the long-term consequences of permanently editing a human DNA can be, or how it could affect the gene pool and our future as a species.

Currently, research is still ongoing and we can sleep easy knowing that we probably won’t wake up to designer babies, superhuman Korean armies, or 70 years old that look 25. However, we have to be aware that it is happening – almost it’s been almost a year since the first genetic modification of an embryo in Britain was approved.

The future, fictional as it may seem, is going to require critical and firm answers to all these ethical questions so we’re going to have to start drawing lines, putting the risks and the benefits on the scale and having conversations about the possibilities of gene editing