Round 2: Turning Heterosexuality On and Off

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Round 2: Turning Heterosexuality On and Off

By John Tierney [2007]

The post about using a drug to change the sexual orientation of fruit flies — and some day, perhaps, of humans — generated lots of indignant reactions and questions about the research. I asked David Featherstone, one of the authors of the paper in Nature Neuroscience, to respond to Lab readers. Here’s what Dr. Featherstone, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has to say:

The response to our research has been fascinating, and highlights the giant gap between what neuroscientists already know and what the public believes. To other neuroscientists, the main shocker from our work is that a glial cell amino acid transporter is regulating information processing by altering ambient extracellular glutamate.

According to scientific dogma, glial cells play little or no role in information processing in the brain, and ‘ambient extracellular glutamate’ is generally thought to be an experimental artifact — a sign that researchers screwed up their analytical chemistry. The fact that the processes we describe happen to regulate sexual behavior is really of little importance to most neuroscientists (although we dorky scientists are titillated as much as anyone when reading about ‘genital licking’).

The fact is, ‘gay genes’ have been known to exist for a long time, in flies and other animals, including humans. Genetic links to all sorts of human traits have been identified.

A widely used, extremely useful database of human traits with a genetic basis is Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM), which can be accessed here. This database has entries for devastating neurological disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, but also things like pathological gambling, attention deficit disorder, eye color, arm folding preference, and homosexuality. Some of these conditions are things we obviously want to ‘cure’. Others are not. Regardless, information on all of them is accumulating to the point where drug treatment approaches could be designed.

As for our ability to switch homosexual behavior on and off in flies, a Harvard study this past summer showed that it could also be done in mice (interestingly, it, like our study, also involved changing the ability to sense pheromones).

So the question is not if we will understand the biological basis of homosexuality enough to alter it, but when. And what people will choose to do with the knowledge. If there is a demand, I guarantee some pharmaceutical company will make the stuff. Or will the government outlaw treatments for behaviors that are obviously no threat to the individual or society? Would this imply that the government officially thinks that homosexuality is no one’s business but one’s own?

I don’t see why anyone’s sexual orientation should be the government’s business, and I also don’t see why anyone’s decision to change sexual orientation — from straight to gay, or vice versa — should be the government’s business either. I can understand why some readers are concerned about what might be done should this new technology ever become available. But when it comes to figuring out how to use it sensibly, I put a lot more trust in individuals making decisions for themselves than I do in any committee in Washington.

Original article in NY Times