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Drug lets an adult brain learn more like a child’s

by Lindsay Jolivet Feb 3 / 14
A new study has found that a common mood disorder drug can reopen the brain’s pathways to absorb musical knowledge that only small children can typically learn.

The drug valproic acid made subjects’ brains more able to learn music like a child’s brain would. (Photo credit: iStockphoto)

A paper published in Frontiers, co-authored by Senior Fellows Takao Hensch and Janet Werker in the Child & Brain Development program, looked at how well adult men could learn to identify the pitch of a musical note by ear after taking valproic acid, a drug used to treat illnesses such as bipolar disorder and epilepsy.

People who can correctly name the pitch of a sound or sing a perfect “C” without a reference are said to have absolute or “perfect” pitch, a skill that’s nearly impossible to learn after about age seven. The men in the study, none of whom trained extensively in music as kids, showed major improvement in their ability to recognize pitches after two weeks of taking the drug while undergoing music lessons.

“They didn’t have absolute pitch. But they showed a statistically significant improvement in performance, which is still quite phenomenal,” Dr. Werker says.

The research developed from a collaboration between Dr. Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Hensch, a professor of neurology and molecular cellular biology at Harvard, after they met at a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) program meeting.

“Kudos to CIFAR for bringing together researchers from across disciplines, and for having adventurous people, like Janet, who are willing to find the right collaborators to test — in a safe, controlled way — these ideas,” Dr. Hensch says.

For years, Dr. Hensch says, scientists have seen kids’ brains as “fountains of plasticity” with an immense capacity to absorb new knowledge. But until recently, it seemed the door of optimal learning creaked shut as children grew up, eventually locking their brains from ever developing abilities such as perfect pitch, “which is quite a depressing view of brain plasticity, frankly,” Dr. Hensch says.

However, research on animals began to show that it’s possible to pry that door back open later in life.

“Just like when you lock a door, you can reopen it if you have the key or if you know the combination,” Dr. Werker says.

The researchers say this study is the first evidence that it’s also possible to reopen the critical period in humans.

But as with all drugs, Dr. Hensch says caution is essential. A physician monitored the participants closely while they took the drug.

There are benefits to closing the pathways that control critical periods, because it makes our brains more stable and lets us hang on to the knowledge we already have. In addition, people develop their native language and much of their identity in the first years of their lives.

“Aren’t we running some kind of risk that we lose who we are?”

Dr. Hensch says that thankfully, the study encouraged the researchers this wasn’t likely to happen.

That’s good news for potential applications of the research, which could one day include helping recovery in people with a neurodevelopmental disorder, a traumatic brain injury or a stroke.