Mighty (Cheerful) Mouse



Scientists have bred a stain of mice that are permanently cheerful, by removing the TREK-1 gene, which realted to seratonin transmission in the brain. The mice "represent the first time depression has been eliminated through genetic alteration of an organism." The head researcher said the mice "acted as if they had been treated with antidepressants for at least three weeks" and speculated that this discovery could open up a new strain of drugs to treat depression.

But why think small, even if we are talking about mice? The debate about genetic engineering too often slips into squabbles about all those frivolous parents who will want blond, blue-eyed sons. Let's talk about this instead–what happens when parents have the option to genetically insure against depression?

Interesting tidbit: One way scientists test mice for depression is to dangle them by their tails. Mice that don't struggle are labeled "depressed."

See a Reason-sponsored debate on human genetic enhancement here.

NEXT: The Success of My Secrets

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  1. Obviously, the first step is to genetically engineer humans to have tails so they (we) can be tested for depression.

  2. There is an old Twilight Zone episode where they force the guy to undergo the surgury to make him good looking and happy just like everyone else. I would like that is an exageration, but maybe not. First, what is depression? Psychologists have pretty much defined everything to fit under the rubric of “depression”. A lot of great artists, thinkers, writers, composers and musicians have suffered from depression. I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to say that their “depression” such as it was contributed to their art and by extension to the world.

    If we really do get to the point where we can genetically engineer out things like depression, there is a real danger that we start to define “depression” or “hanicaped” as anything that is different and we end up genetically engineering ourselves into a horribly bland world.

    The irony is that many of the posters and Reason staff who think this technology is wonderful would absolutely hate the world it might create. If living forever means living forever in a world of genetically programed “shiney happy people”, death is looking better all of the time.

  3. Ah ha, now I know what the members of studio audience to ?America?s Funniest Homes Videos? have in common, lack of a TREK-1 gene.

    On another note, maybe the mice that don?t struggle realize from past experience they won?t get hurt, or that struggling doesn?t matter too much when something 800 times larger than you has you by the tail. TREK-1 could be the ?smart? gene, not the ?depressed? gene.

  4. “I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to say that their “depression” such as it was contributed to their art and by extension to the world.”

    I’d have to give idea a “iffy” rating. While depression may have shaped what sort of people they were and what sort of art they made, in general real chemical depression prevents people from wanting to do much of anything, and as such generally can definately be said to hurt the production of art. Whether or not it in some way helps it is debatable, but it’s pretty certain that depression hurts it.

  5. I’m reminded of a quote from one of Asinov’s short stories (“The Greatest Asset”, I think): “Man’s greatest asset is the unsettled mind.”

  6. Wonder if David Pearce is going about, “I told you so!!”

  7. ‘One way scientists test mice for depression is to dangle them by their tails. Mice that don’t struggle are labeled “depressed.” ‘

    NOW I understand why my boss says I’m ‘depressed.’

  8. Excellent post, John.

    Like me, my son is chronically anxious. Which is to say, he inhabits anxiety like it’s a time zone, or the weather. He doesn’t have to have a real, rational reason to be anxious: when he’s in that zone, whatever drifts into his field of perception pulls his anxiety towards it. This morning it was some stupid standardized test, which he can ace, so it’s not like he really has anything to worry about, but try telling him that. Tomorrow he might be fine, or it might be some other damn thing he’s sweating. *sigh* It’s hard to see your child like this. But if I could have ordered up an alternative, would I do it? Absolutely not. I’d rather teach him how to live with his anxieties, to manage them as a part of who he is.

    We have a tendency to say, in a situation like this, “I have an anxiety disorder,” which has the effect of making the anxiety external to oneself. Not, I am anxious, but I have this thing, this alien will that makes me anxious. I have a disorder, like a trick knee or something, so if I can correct it, what’s the problem, right? But in my son — and in me, too — this tendency towards anxiety is an inextricable part of personality. For me, at any rate, it has always been the source of my sense of humor (such as it is), my work ethic (ditto), the pleasure I take in music and books, and so on. For good and ill, I want my (and my son’s) bad stuff. The bad stuff makes the good stuff possible. To will it away — or to contemplate the ability to do so for an unborn child — is somehow monstrous, like willing a death. (Like, if you say, I wish I was the King of Spain, you are actually wishing your own oblivion, because you are not the King of Spain, and he’s not you, and in saying you want to be him you are wishing the replacement of yourself, not just yourself wearing an ermine robe.)

    I have no faith in the state to say anything intelligent about what choices we are all to make for ourselves, and I am saying nothing about what this rather disturbing story means for public policy. But it is worth taking a moment to consider the gravity of what that choice means.

  9. Although I think a lot of creativity and inventiveness, especially in the arts, would be lost if we engineered out things like bipolarity and depression, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But it’s like this strange Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing, you know? Where you start to actually embrace the illness? Just strange, is all.

  10. If nobody is ever depressed or anxious, then nobody has any incentive to change the world for the better. Look at the names of the men who filled our history books; guys like Martin Luther King and George Washington didn’t change history because they were content with the status quo.

    That said, if someone has clinical depression so severe they simply can’t function, telling them to suck it up rather than take medical steps to solve their problem would be utterly cruel.

  11. John and phord, excellent arguments. I get really, really scared by the prospect of fooling with the germ line in humans to eliminate the possibility of illness, especially something like depression which has a broad range of symptoms. Even in cases like Tay-Sachs or sickle-cell, which are inevitably deadly diseases, elimination of the entire complex of genes that cause them has some serious consequences. We just can’t know what else we’re fooling with, or what horrors we’ll produce down the line. (It’s also possible that this risk will be reduced. Until then, I really think caution is the best policy.)

    Having said that, I think we can’t spend enough money on research to treat the symptoms of genetic diseases. My uncle committed suicide, after two years of treatment for depression so severe he had hallucinations. It would have saved all of us much pain if there had been some treatment for him. I just think there’s an important distinction between therapies addressing expressed symptoms of a disease affecting an individual person and therapies designed to eliminate from an entire population any gene that can cause that illness.

  12. I wouldn’t want my kids to be happy all the time; they’re much quieter when they’re depressed.

  13. Music would certainly suck if we were all happy. It’s hard to write Bela Lugosi’s Dead when you’re happy.

  14. Jennifer, contra my earlier quote, I have to point out that “if nobody is ever depressed or anxious, then nobody has any incentive to change the world” for the worse, either. Doesn’t mean that I want to get rid of unsettled minds, but it’s not like unsettled minds aren’t a huge source of trouble, too. I’m resisting the urge to go Godwin, but that’s too obvious an example to ignore. Adolf the successful painter probably doesn’t go into politics. In some other universe, he, Picasso, and Marie-Th?r?se Walter were involved in some sort of threesome of love and creativity.

    Of course, to the extent that someone can be depressed, unsettled, or even flat-out insane without harming others, they should be able to stay that way, if they want. In fact, it would take quite a bit of bad behavior before I could rationalize forcibly or even preemptively changing someone’s mental state. The obvious clich? here is that the cure may be worse than the disease–what are the side effects of such a treatment? Would we have stupider people? Amorality? Who knows? This is dangerous territory, monkeying with behavior on a genetic level before there’s an even a person with behavior to deal with. Even a genetic propensity for depression does not guarantee that the person in question will actually be depressed.

  15. Music would certainly suck if we were all happy. It’s hard to write Bela Lugosi’s Dead wen you’re happy.

  16. I remember back in the day when i was a psych student, I remember seeing a study that showed that depressed people were generally better able to accurately asses reality.

    That a person when depressed was more truly aware of his surroundings than when he was happy.

    The depressed person was better able to describe the way his friends thought about him and to describe his surroundings.

    Something to consider. If the study was accurate, or correctly done that is.

  17. Maybe if we neutralized the server squirrels’ TREK-1 genes they’d get off their lazy asses.

  18. Nature has a discussion about this topic…


    ” So what kinds of enhancement are people thinking about?

    There was a talk at this conference on ‘virtue engineering’ by James Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Hartford, Connecticut. He spoke about the idea of using technology to enhance moral behaviour. A lot of people have trouble with impulse control, for example, and they might benefit from pharmaceutical help.

    In the context of marriage, an interesting possibility is the use of pharmaceuticals to regulate the pair-bonding mechanism. There are a small number of hormones, such as vasopressin and oxytocin, that might help us form bonds with others. It could be possible to prevent the levels of these chemicals from trailing off, and to infuse romance into fading marriages ? like a technological form of counselling.”

    Will the libertarian program include freedom enhancements?

  19. As someone who has dealt professionally with a number of clinically depressed patients, I find John’s comments perverse. He romanticizes depression the same way that other people romanticize the human spirit when dealing with cancer or the holocaust. It’s a Reader’s Digest view of life for those who enjoy the drama of someone elses’ suffering.

    It’s true that some people with mental illness have produced great art. 99.9999999% do not. A great many more end up jobless, homeless and drug addicted, or commit suicide. The balance of suffering does not justify another painting of sunflowers.

    Jennifer, depressed people do not want to change the world. Depressed people have no motivation to act at all, because they don’t derive pleasure from anything. They don’t enjoy eating, or music, beer or sex. The world would not be any worse without depression.

  20. Commenters are conflating big-D Depression (as in Clinical) with depression (as in sadness). Disappointment is not Clinical Depression, nor is unhappiness. APL is 100% correct.

  21. Uh no, he’s not. I am not going to reveal a bunch of personal business on here, but APL is NOT right. He’s right to say that many people suffer when it comes to elevated moods, be it mania or depression, and that they struggle to maintain jobs and famiiies and relationships. BUT…those highs and lows do indeed produce some of the most fascinating writings and pieces of art. I imagine Nietschze’s insanity is a good example of this. Like I said, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but there is a time where people learn to adapt and kind of enjoy their illness, even if it makes them completely miserable.

  22. Ayn Randian – I don’t think APL is saying no good art or writing has come from depression. I know I’m not. I’m saying that in most cases, there really aren’t any artistic bonuses to depression.

    Put another way, depression is aesthetically neutral.

  23. Who cares as long as it’s a choice. Yes 99.9%(or less) of ‘clinically depressed’ people probably aren’t any better for it, but some people are.

    This brings to mind something I thought of back in the days of the ILOVEYOU virus… a real “I Love You” virus that infects your neurons with a couple genes for producing MDMA… Throw that in a cold or flu virus and watch the world descend into a giant puddle of love… or something like that… it could happen.. really!

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Ren -n- Stimpy’s ‘Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy’ helmet yet…

  24. I have to go with APL here – there’s a distinct difference between having a sombre outlook on life, and being clinically depressed. The latter is simply awful, and while awfulness and suffering of various kinds will – on occasion – produce great art, that doesn’t mean we should glorify suffering.

  25. Ren -n- Stimpy’s ‘Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy’ helmet

    Stimpy: “Are you feeling any better?”
    Ren: “No I’m not feeling any better. Wait! What are you up to?”
    Stimpy: Holds something behind his back and says “Oh, no-othing.”
    Ren: “What have you got behind your back? You’re hiding something from me… aren’t you? What is it you’re hiding? All right let’s see it, okay, hand it over!”
    Stimpy: Quickly slams the Happy Helmet onto Ren.
    Ren: “Hey! What is this thing? Get it off of me!”
    Stimpy: “It’s the happy helmet, Ren. Now you’ll always be happy! And this is the remote control. And I use this dial to control how happy you are!”
    Ren: “You sick little monkey! Why I oughta-”
    Stimpy pushes a button on the remote control and Ren freezes. His mouth curves into a smile and he tries to fight it.
    Stimpy: “Hey, it works!” He pushes the button again. This continues for a few more times.
    Ren: “No! Got to fight it! Can’t lose control! Will strong…. body weak…..”
    Finally Ren snaps and becomes insanely happy.

  26. BUT…those highs and lows do indeed produce some of the most fascinating writings and pieces of art.

    Bipolar disorder is associated with some pretty impressive successes, whether they be financial, political, mathematical or artistic, but this is due to the hypomania of bipolar disorder, not the depression.

    I would certainly enjoy being hypomanic all the time, as people in that state tend to be charismatic and astoundingly productive.

    I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but there is a time where people learn to adapt and kind of enjoy their illness, even if it makes them completely miserable.

    No one enjoys depression. Depression is a state where, by definition, enjoyment is absent.

  27. I’m just guessing here, but I’m thinking that Captain Kirk wouldn’t put up with this sort of thing.

  28. Actually some people enjoy depression… after swinging high for a while I enjoy the low. It’s kinda comforting in a way and nice to let my mind rest. There are a couple shades to my depression though, and some of them are never enjoyable. I imagine there are a lot of people out there who think differently, which is why we should all be free to use whatever drugs in whatever quantities we choose.

  29. I would imagine that jasno is dead-on accurate for most people, although APL, you have a point, the lows have to be contrasted with the hypomania in order to be enjoyed either way. I couldn’t imagine never having the highs.

  30. I would imagine that jasno is dead-on accurate for most ill people, although APL, you have a point, the lows have to be contrasted with the hypomania in order to be enjoyed either way. I couldn’t imagine never having the highs.

  31. I’m fairly certain that if a person has hypomania they’d be considered bipolar rather than depressed… not having any high at all is unpleasant and there was nothing enjoyable about the experience. (I personally wouldn’t count periods of relatively less misery as being a ‘high’.)

  32. 1. Shouldn’t “hypomania” in fact be “hypermania?” “Hypomania” means “below mania” or “less mania.”

    2. I think the issue here is not so much whether it’s great for any particular person to be clinically depressed, but whether it’s a good thing to pursue treatments that eliminate the genes that might, in certain circumstances, produce depression from the entire population. Having been treated, unsuccessfully, for depression, and coming from a family with a long and serious history of the disease, I’m all for good treatments, but I’m terrified of any treatment that just eliminates the genes associated with the illness. This seems like using a sledgehammer for a job that requires a tiny laser scalpel.

  33. If altering this gene makes someone happy always and without reason, than perhaps it would a bad thing to tamper with (although really, would the tampered with person possibly mind?). If it simply reduces the probability of clinical Depression then why the hell wouldn’t you want such a thing for your childeren? Even if we produced less great art, a contention I find dubious, I think wanting others to suffer so you have better novels to read is utter cruelty.

  34. One reason I would object to monkeying with the gene, as opposed to effective treatment of the symptoms, is that I think mental pain sometimes serves the same adaptive function as physical pain: it warns the suffer to STOP DOING THIS PAINFUL THING!!!!! Leprosy victims lose the ability to feel pain in their extremities, and consequently suffer exponentially greater harm because they lack the signal to, say, quit touching the hot stove or the sharp stone. I’m sure there are other mechanisms at work, but the nerve damage first manifests, I believe, in the inability to feel pain. Depression can be caused by environmental influences as well as genes, and sometimes I think is an important cue to change one’s environment. To use one common example from my friends, being miserable all the time is usually a clue to get out of a bad relationship. I suffered because I had the worst boss in the Western Hemisphere. Quit the job, lost the illness.

    I am more familar than most with the consequences of serious and untreated depression, what with my uncle killing himself. Still, I hesitate to eliminate even the possibility of the disease when we should be looking for more effective treatments for the damaging symptoms.

  35. Karen-Hypomania is the correct term. It’s a state of mind that’s below outright mania and characterized by cheerfulness and increased productivity. Mania involves grandiose thoughts, extreme insomnia, disconnected thoughts, inappropriate behavior and in advanced cases halucinations and can occasionally cause a complete psychotic break. Hypomania is actually quite pleasant. Outright mania is terrifying.

  36. I grew up with man boobs. I was 17 and never kissed a girl. never had any friends and was generally a miserable person. When I was a kid, the other kids would grab my nipples and start twisting them. I considered suicide many times.

    I had a breat reduction three years ago and now experience a level of happiness that I never thought possible. I’m sure in another couple years I will be even happier and dread to think what would’ve happened had I been before plastic surgery.

    Before my surgery I had flunked out of high school. Since my surgery I’ve gotten my GED, did two years of community college maintaining a GPA in the high 3s and am starting this fall at one of the best public universities in the country.

    That’s why my blood boils whenever I hear people talk about how we should live with our faults and accepts ourselves and blah, blah, blah. I owe my life to unnatural enhancements and would encourage others to better themselves in any way possible

  37. Let’s talk about this instead–what happens when parents have the option to genetically insure against depression?

    Well, in my case — I’d take the option.

    Depression runs in my family, and it is a miserable condition to deal with.

  38. Bob is the smartest person on this thread. Until we have tails, we will never be able to accurately diagnose, or even define, depression. I wonder how elimination the TREK1 gene affects learned helplessness?

  39. I think it’s a common misconception that eliminating depression makes people apathetic.

    It’s only anecdotal of course, but when I got over my Depression (with the help of drugs and a therapist), I did not become lethargic and ‘satisfied’ with the world.

    Instead, I was far more likely to stand up to social bullies, go out and get shit done, and generally felt like I SHOULD act in the world to make it more like I wanted (in whatever small way) because I wanted to be happy.

    Those who don’t agree with me should take a hint from the mouse test: The non-depressed mouse doesn’t passively accept his fate. HE’s the one struggling to kick butt no matter what the odds. A world without Depression would have far more strivers and movers.


    Bob & Wasnowski,
    what are you talking about? The rest of us humans ALREADY have tails. Are the two of you some kind of tail-less genetic freaks?

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