Perfect pitch is the ability to accurately name any musical note you hear. It's a talent possessed by just one in 10,000 people, and it can only be learned during a critical period before age 7. Now, scientists have discovered that a common psychiatric medication can restart that learning ability in adults, even if they've never had musical training.
Previous research has found that the epilepsy drug valproate allowed adult mice to learn habits that are usually impossible to develop after youth. So Harvard professor Takao Hensch and his team gave the drug to a group of grown men with no musical training, then asked them to do a series of online ear-training exercises for two weeks. Those who took the drug showed pitch improvement that was significantly better than those taking a placebo, evidence that the drug restored the brain plasticity normally lost after childhood.
The implications for learning are huge. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Hensch points out the potential applications beyond music:
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.
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Though in the same interview, he cautions that experiments in this direction should be undertaken very carefully:
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.
Maybe someday, with the help of a pill, we'll all have Ella Fitzgerald's perfect pitch. [Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience via NPR]
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