A file photo shows Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

A scientific journal published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the twin girls, Lulu and Nana, born in China after their genes were altered by a Chinese biologist to be immune to HIV/AIDS, could also have higher intelligence quotients and better memory than their peers.

He Jiankui, who was with the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology when he carried out his controversial and morally questionable human embryo gene-editing experiments, could have inadvertently altered cognitive functions of the twin babies when he used the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technique to deactivate the CCR5 gene that allowed HIV to infect human cells, according to the MIT Technology Review.

CCR5 is a protein on the surface of white blood cells that is involved in the immune system as it acts as a receptor for chemokines. Recent research indicates that CCR5 is linked to deficits in learning and memory and is a powerful suppressor of neuronal plasticity, learning and memory.

Previous experiments on lab rats showed the removal of the CCR5 gene led to significant improvement in their memory.

It is believed that decreasing the function of CCR5 increases long-term potentiation as well as hippocampus-dependent memory in mice, while neuronal CCR5 over-expression causes memory deficits.

Neurobiologist Alcino Silva, with the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-authored a 2016 study that found CCR5 was linked to deficits in learning and memory, said He’s gene editing likely affected the babies’ brains, though the exact effect was impossible to predict, reported the South China Morning Post.

New research on the CCR5 gene published earlier this month in the scientific journal Cell, co-authored by Silva, found links between the gene and academic performance.

He is said to have been locked up in a hotel room in Shenzhen in the wake of the international backlash after he revealed news at the end of last year of the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies. The Chinese authorities have vowed to step up scrutiny of human gene activities to make sure they conform to laws and bio-ethical norms, and to hold violators accountable.

He reportedly forged ethical review papers in the process of his experiment, which involved recruiting eight couples, resulting in two pregnancies. A third gene-edited fetus is being carried by another woman, while the twin girls are being kept under medical observation in an undisclosed location by the Guangdong provincial government.

Read more: Gene-edited twins ‘deserve normal life but need follow-ups’

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