New drug could restore brain elasticity and facilitate faster skill acquisition.
Perfect pitch is the ability to accurately name any musical note you hear, and is considered by many as the holy grail of music. While there is a genetic element involved, it is also an ability that must be perfected before the age of seven – or at least, that used to be the case. Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, may have another way.
A drug by the name of valproate has been proven to assist adult mice in learning habits that are usually impossible to develop after youth. This same drug was given to a group of grown men with no musical training, who were then asked to carry out a series of online ear-training exercises for two weeks. Those who took the drug showed significant pitch improvement compared with those who took a placebo – proof that valproate can restore brain plasticity normally lost after childhood.
In an interview with NPR, Dr. Hensch points out other potential applications:
There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones. So the idea here was, could we come up with a way that would reopen plasticity, [and] paired with the appropriate training, allow adult brains to become young again.
The use of such a drug also carries with it some inherent risks:
If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.
So while it might be possible to acquire new skills much more quickly with the use of valproate, it could also be possible to completely reprogram our personality. While this might appeal to some, there are probably far more potential downfalls than there are benefits with such an attempt.