Human Drones?

As the Olympic Games approach, there is considerable concern about doping to enhance physical performance. But what about for us mere mortals? Could employers create human drones that work consistently all day long, without slacking off towards lunch time or the end of the day? Some recent research indicates that blocking dopamine receptors might just do that.

Procrastinating monkeys were turned into workaholics using a gene treatment to block a key brain compound. Blocking cells from receiving dopamine made the monkeys work harder at a task — and they were better at it, too. Dr. Barry Richmond and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health used a new genetic technique to block the D2 gene, which makes a receptor for dopamine, a key brain messenger.

In their study, Richmond and colleagues used seven rhesus monkeys, which had to push a lever in response to visual cues on a projection screen, and got a drop of water as a reward. Apparently, without the dopamine receptor they consistently stayed focused and made fewer errors, because they could no longer rely on visual cues to predict when they were going to be rewarded.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richmond and colleagues said they were trying to figure out how D2 is involved in a type of learning which involves looking at how much work there is, visually, and deciding how long it will take to complete it. Monkeys and humans tend to procastinate until the last possible minute to finish up the work, and become very adept at estimating how long they have.

Molecular geneticist Edward Ginns created a DNA antisense agent that tricked brain cells into turning off their D2 receptors. Antisense involves making a kind of mirror-image molecule that looks like a strand of DNA and works to block a gene’s action.

Although the researchers said that they were interested in the research to treat mental illnesses, are there adequate social and ethical barriers to stop employers (or get-ahead employees) from using this knowledge?

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