The Idea Factory

This pill could give your brain the learning powers of a 7-year-old

A Harvard biologist used it to "teach" a group of young men a hard-to-learn skill: Perfect pitch

Your brain is like a sponge when it is young. Studies have shown that kids pick up up foreign languages faster than adults (though that is up for debate), and that some skills — like "perfect pitch," which allows gifted vocalists to sing notes with unerring precision — are best nurtured from a young age.

But what if it were possible for the adult mind to revert back to a more porous state of learning?

That's the subject of an investigation by Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, who is studying a drug that may make it dramatically easier for grown-ups to absorb new skills and information — almost as if they were seven years old or younger.

The key ingredient here is valproic acid. Normally, it's used to treat neurological disorders like seizures and epilepsy, and various other mood disorders. But Hensch claims it may help restore plasticity in the adult brain.

In a new experiment, Hensch used valproic acid to bestow the gift of perfect pitch to a group of adult males between the ages of 18 to 27. Here's now NPR describes it:

Hensch gave the drug to a group of healthy, young men who had no musical training as children. They were asked to perform tasks online to train their ears, and at the end of a two-week period, tested on their ability to discriminate tone, to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at their age.

In other words, he gave people a pill and then taught them to have perfect pitch. The findings are significant: "It's quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch," he says. [NPR]

It's a fascinating development, and one that could theoretically help adults acquire new skills and talents at a later stage in their lives. Of course, the side effects — if any — will still need to be studied closely, particularly on a cellular level. "I should caution that critical periods [of development] have evolved for a reason," says Hensch, "and it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly."

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