"Should Down syndrome be cured?" read the title of a Motherlode (the parenting blog at The New York Times) post a few weeks ago. "Would you cure your kid's Down syndrome?" was Rod Dreher's version of the question. Both posts and the hundreds of comments they provoked originated with a study published in Science Translational Medicine last November. The study detailed research conducted on mice that had been genetically engineered to mimic Down syndrome. The researchers provided a drug to alter the brain chemistry of these mice, and the mice who received the drug demonstrated improved cognitive function. As Dr. Ahmad Salehi, the primary author of the study, explained, "If you intervene early enough, you will be able to help kids with Down syndrome to collect and modulate information. Theoretically, that could lead to an improvement in cognitive functions in these kids."
The study reports a theoretical possibility for improving cognition in individuals with Down syndrome. The same drug hasn't been tested on humans with Down syndrome, so we don't know whether these drugs would be effective or if they would have adverse side effects. Furthermore, the study's doctors suggest that the drugs would need to be administered early in the child's development. The individual with Down syndrome, in other words, would not be able to make his or her own decision regarding the treatment.
So the study itself raises ethical and philosophical questions, but even more problematic is the writers' suggestion that this treatment offers a way to "cure" Down syndrome. The language implies that Down syndrome is a disease, a sickness that is currently incurable. But Down syndrome is the presence, from conception, of an extra 21st chromosome in every ...1