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Charlie Gordon has actually an IQ that 68. He works in a bakery scan floors, and also in the evening, the attends adult discovering classes delivered by his lovely Alice Kinnian. He is sweet, he is kind, and all he wants to execute is learn. So when Professor Nemur and Dr Stauss, researchers from Beekman University, method him and offer that a radical new operation to do him “normal”, the jumps at the chance.

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Flowers for Algernon was released together a novel 1966, adhering to the success the Daniel Keyes’ short story first published in The magazine of Fantasy & scientific research Fiction. It has actually gone ~ above to inspire a variety of other science-fiction projects, consisting of a 1968 film adaptation. Flowers because that Algernon complies with Charlie with a series of self-written progress reports, and also although not initially mindful of his improvement, details his climb from struggling come spell even the easiest words to a innovative intellect. Along the means he meets Algernon, a laboratory mouse who additionally received this innovative surgical treatment who winter his profound intelligence.

At first, Charlie relishes his new-found intelligence, connecting on a new level through his teacher Alice and also discovering details about his childhood that define who the is today. However, he easily becomes disillusioned with the experiment, isolating self from those he when thought friends and also realising he’d spent his life being belittled, ridiculed and also dehumanised. He also begins come overtake also those he taken into consideration “geniuses”, no longer being able to relate to Alice, the scientists running the experiment, or even the student he as soon as wished to debate with in ~ the regional college. However as Algernon’s performance begins to decline, becoming erratic and irritable, Charlie realises through horror that his surgical treatment was no permanent, and he would quickly follow Algernon’s decline. In a frantic effort to do the most of the moment he’s got left, Charlie litter himself right into working top top his very own case, finally producing a hypothesis to define his mind’s own inevitable decay.

Could it yes, really happen?

I will admit that when I began the novel, ns knew small of that or its context, not also being aware of once it to be written. However, the dystopian feel and also the derogatory language used to define Charlie conveniently places this publication as a story of scientific research of the past. Yet despite the plainly science-fiction instance presented here, these type of experiments were no unheard the in the 1960s. Trial and error on those thought to have lower social condition or intelligence was not unusual — because that example, in the united state black patient were offered in cancer trials there is no their understanding or consent. There were additionally some disturbing psychological experiments, consisting of the 1971 Stanford jail Experiment, where volunteers told they to be “guards” and hence had actually power end the “prisons” quickly became sadistic and also viciously mistreated your inferiors.

A vital theme of both this real-life experiments and Charlie’s surgical procedure is the absence of moral review the is now essential for any type of experiment involving humans. The absence of evidence that the surgery also worked — Algernon was the first mouse to demonstrate a lengthy improvement in intelligence — would have prevented the operation on Charlie from ever before taking place. Moreover, Charlie self points the end one the critical flaws of the experiment:

They had actually made a failure — that course!… Professor Nemur’s conclusions have actually been premature. Because that both Algernon and also myself, it would take an ext time to see if this adjust would stick.

Progress report 13, p. 124

Charlie realises that the scientists had jumped to conclusions, that they hadn’t verified the boost in either his or Algernon’s knowledge was permanent. If this experiment was to be conducted today, numerous operated mice would need to be adhered to over their whole lifetimes to prove its benefit prior to it might be trialed in humans. Even then, pilot experiments would certainly be necessary to check the procedure i will not ~ cause any type of lasting physical or psychological damage to the pet before that was further tested. These simple observational experiments would now unquestionably it is in conducted and also would likely have prevented Charlie from ever being approached about the experiment.

So the principles of Charlie’s experiment room obviously questionable. However, the science itself is not as well far-fetched. Although the exact an approach of Charlie’s procedure is never explicitly stated, the problem they attribute to Charlie’s cognitive deficits is real and also the rough concept behind his intelligence is eluded to:

“We don’t know specifically what reasons the kind of phenylketonuria that Charlie was enduring from as a child… whatever it was resulted in a defective gene i beg your pardon produces a, shall us say, “maverick enzyme” that creates defective biochemical reactions. And, that course, newly created amino acids contend with the regular enzymes causing brain damage…

The destruction to the tissue irreversible, not the processes itself. Plenty of researchers have actually been maybe to reverse the process through injections of chemistry which incorporate the defective enzymes… This is main to our own method as well. Yet first, we remove the damaged parts of the mind and allow the implanted mind tissue which has been chemically revitalised come produce mind proteins at a superordinary rate–”

Progress report 13, p. 113–14

What this summary tells united state is the Charlie’s cognitive deficits were attributable come phenylketonuria (PKU), a problem caused by low levels the the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase, which results in the neurotoxic build-up of the amino mountain phenylalanine. There is some proof that the results of PKU have the right to be decreased by a diet short in protein (and therefore phenylalanine), according to MRI scans in PKU patient after 9 months of a strictly low-phenylalanine diet (Clearly et al., 1995). Moreover, the FDA freshly approved one enzyme substitute that reduces blood phenylalanine, return this has yet come be connected with an improvement in mental performance.

Nonetheless, the idea the Charlie received a “chemical injection” that can improve the duty of this “defective” enzyme is not beyond the realms of possibility. If a drug might be discovered to substantially increase the task of everything enzymatic volume Charlie had this might reduce the result neuronal damage. However, the idea the this would cause any considerable structural brain changes in one adult receiving this therapy is unlikely, and also his knowledge overshooting the of a neurotypical adult is very improbable. Nonetheless, modern-day non-invasive neuroimaging techniques could now be utilised come assess any type of potential treatment effect — diffusor tensor MRI might be provided to analyse white issue tracts and hence connectivity that a mind being treated to “increase intelligence”.

The description also suggests the damaged areas of Charlie’s mind were removed throughout the operation, to do room the the reconditioned tissue. Timeless psychological experiments demonstrate that the physics manipulation of the brain can have actually an enormous impact on learning and also memory. Because that example, the well known patient H.M. Had component of his brain removed in 1953 to mitigate epileptic seizures, an operation that left that with extensive anterograde amnesia, meaning he to be unable to form new memories (Squire, 2009). This experiment to be integral to finding out the duty of the hippocampus, now thought to it is in the seat of learning and memory. The is therefore likely that any type of surgery Charlie would have had actually would somehow have been aimed in ~ his hippocampi.

Can us actually rise “intelligence”?

Although the procedure undertaken ~ above Charlie is unlikely to an outcome in any type of real improvement in learning and memory, that’s not to say other approaches haven’t been attempted to increase “intelligence”. For example, one study compared the learning ability of mice maintained in common cages compared to those that stayed in cages v running wheels. This study uncovered that mice the ran much more had an ext neurogenesis (the bear of brand-new neurons) in the dentate gyrus an ar of the hippocamp. This was linked with amplified performance on a number of spatial memory tasks, and cellular indications of raised learning capacity (van Praag et al., 1999). An additional study also found some task-specific rises in spatial storage in mice with a key protein connected in endocannabinoid neurotransmission “knocked-out” (genetically removed), back this walk not translate into a general increase in “intelligence” the the mouse (Kishimoto et al., 2015).

Other, seemingly much more radical ideologies have likewise been trialed in animals. For example, in 2014 the people was shocked come hear the a computer mouse that had actually had human progenitor cell injected right into its brain. The early 300,000 cells had actually multiplied to over 12 million astrocytes, a form of support cell found in the brain. These mice performed as much as 4 times better than control mice in a variety of learning and memory tests. Although the herbal mouse neural circuitry to be still intact, the is thought that the injected human being cells had increased the efficiency of these pathways and hence were enabling the mouse to learn faster (Windrem et al., 2014). This is a real-world instance of just how an injection into the brain, comparable to what Charlie would have actually experienced, developed a real, and this time long-lasting, rise in intelligence in these mice!

So are human being astrocytes the means forward in increasing intelligence? Well, analysis performed on Albert Einstein’s brain suggests the had an ext astrocytes than manage subjects in this left inferior parietal cortex, a region of the brain associated v mathematical ability (Diamond et al., 1985). Back these additional astrocytes can not be shown to be causal in Einstein’s increased intelligence, they show a solid correlation, mirroring what was watched in the mouse injected with person astrocytes.

But injecting an ext human astrocytes into human beings is unlikely to ever get v an ethical review — it entails too plenty of fetal neurons and injections into babies to ever be a possibility. However that’s no to say other approaches haven’t be trialed in humans. Several tech start-ups have developed products that can electrically stimulate the mind in hopes of boosting connections and also improving learning. In 2016, Kernel announced castle would invest $100 million developing an implantable maker that could record and also stimulate neurons in the wishes of boosting intelligence (read an ext about it in this New Scientist article). If one implantable device sounds a little bit too lot like science-fiction, a study in Australia discovered that electrically stimulating various regions that the brain using a head-set have the right to increase creativity and also enhance problem-solving (Chi & Snyder, 2011), simply as Charlie and Algernon learned to traverse mazes faster. Beside from electric stimulation, a number of “smart drugs” are now available on prescription, such as modafinil. However, it’s suggested these drugs nothing actually improve your intelligence, lock simply increase your volume to pay attention and study, eventually improving test scores.

Therefore, back we space some proposal that we can increase human intelligence past that that a normal, healthy adult, these techniques are still in their infancy and also will require much much more robust testing before it ever becomes regime to rise intelligence in people.

What parallels deserve to we draw from Charlie’s story?

An increased and exaggerated instance of both intellectual and emotional learning that ended in a rapid cognitive decline. That is straightforward to attract comparisons come the organic learning and development that occurs together we flourish from children into adults that can also decline in old age. This is similarly eluded come in the summary of Algernon’s brain in his autopsy:

Compared come the common brain, Algernon’s had reduced in weight and also there to be a general smoothing out of the cerebral convolutions and also a deepening and broadening of brain fissures.

Progress report 16, p. 198

The diminished weight of Algernon’s mind is similar to the progressive atrophy observed in a number of forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (O’Brien et al., 2001). Smoothing the the brain surface additionally occurs in lissencephaly, a set of rare mind disorders characterised by substantial psychomotor retardation and also an extremely restricted life expectancy. In general, the higher the degree of the convolution the the brain surface, the much more intelligent the organism, through more-evolved primates having a greater brain surface area than lesser people (Zilles et al. 1989). Furthermore, brain volume is additionally known to decrease with normal aging, v MRI imaging mirroring a 0.22% decrease in mind volume in between the period of 20 and 80, with the decrease accelerating with age (Fotenos et al., 2008). That is because of this quite feasible the Charlie’s rapid decrease could result from catastrophic neuronal loss. Consequently, this life that Charlie had actually was virtually a normal one of rapid learning and development (his childhood and also adolescence), followed later through cognitive decline and storage loss (old age). His adult life was just compressed right into a collection of months, through the rate of innovation proportional to the rate of decline, i beg your pardon Charlie himself names the “Algernon-Gordon hypothesis”.

Charlie’s story is both heart-breaking and also disconcerting. The wished that being smart would lug him happiness, but as that becomes much more self-aware, he only becomes an ext isolated and also resentful. Moreover, there is a palpable sense of scare as his mind promptly declines, this time mindful of how small he knows and being aware of what he has lost. Although this story appears unlikely, the reassurance the Charlie’s fate was merely science-fiction is that course simply as premature as Professor Nemur’s predictions. Populaces are aging, through neurodegenerative problems such as Alzheimer’s and also Parkinson’s condition becoming progressively common. The emotion of progressively losing her mind is one that we can all one-day face and also is just terrifying. But as clinical sciences continue to advance, we might well have the ability to treat this neurological deficits, v the potential of going past our present cognitive capacity. The concern of increasing person intelligence is likely to be a pushing question that society will need to consider in our pursuit to breakthrough human knowledge in the not too distant future.


Chi RP & Snyder AW (2011) Facilitate insight by Non-invasive mind Stimulation. PLoS One, 6(2): e16655.

Clearly MA et al. (1995) Magnetic resonance imaging in phenylketonuria: reversal of cerebral white matter change. J Pediatr., 127(2): 251–5.

Diamond MC et al. (1985) ~ above the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein. Exp Neurol., 88(1): 198–204.

Fotenos AF et al. (2008) mind Volume decline in Aging. Proof for a Relation between Socioeconomic Status, Preclinical Alzheimer Disease, and Reverse. Arch Neurol., 65(1): 113–20.

Kishimoto Y et al. (2015) Task-specific improvement of hippocampus-dependent discovering in mice deficient in monoacylglycerol lipase, the significant hydrolysing enzyme that the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Front Behav Neurosci., 9: post 134.

O’Brien JT et al. (2001) Progressive mind atrophy on serial MRI in dementia v Lewy bodies, advertisement and vascular dementia. Neurology, 56(10): 1386–88.

Squire LR. (2010) The heritage of patience H.M. Because that Neuroscience. Neuron, 61(1): 6–9.

van Praag H (1999) Running enhances neurogenesis, learning and long-term potentiation in mice. PNAS, 96(23): 13427–431.

Windrem multiple sclerosis et al. (2014) A Competitive benefit by Neonatally Engrafted human Glial Progenitors yields Mice who Brains are Chimeric for human Glia. J Neurosci., 34(48): 16153–161.

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Zilles K et al. (1989) Gyrification that the cerebral cortex the primates. Brain Behav Evol., 24: 143–50.