Before your next karaoke contest, you might want to visit a pharmacist: Researchers have found that a drug known as valproate, or valproic acid, might help people learn how to produce perfect pitch.
Besides the assistance valproate could give to "American Idol" contestants, the study is intriguing because it suggests the adult brain can learn better and faster through drugs that enhance its "neuroplasticity."
Perfect pitch, which scientists refer to as absolute pitch, is the rare ability to identify or produce the pitch of a musical note without any reference point. Experts believe that the ability to produce absolute pitch may be a genetic trait that must be nurtured through musical training in early childhood — by the age of 5, ideally — or it's unlikely to develop. [11 Facts Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby's Brain]
Young children are known to have an unusual degree of neuroplasticity, which enables them to pick up languages and other skills much more easily than adults, who often struggle to learn a new language, play a new musical instrument or learn other new skills.
But the latest study into the development of absolute pitch, published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, suggests that neuroplasticity isn't necessarily a "closed window" after childhood, and valproate might help nudge the window back open.
Your brain on drugs
Valproate belongs to a class of drugs known as histone deacetylase inhibitors. Marketed under the names Depakote, Depacon and Stavzor, valproate has been used for years to treat migraines, epileptic seizures and mood disorders, including bipolar disorder. (The drug is not recommended for women who might be pregnant, because it can cause decreased IQ and other developmental problems in newborns.)
Earlier research in rats had suggested that histone deacetylase inhibitors might help the animals recover from neural deficits induced by limiting vision in one eye. The drugs seem to work through epigenetics, the external modifications to DNA that switch certain genes "on" or "off."
To build on this earlier research, and to test the hypothesis that psychoactive drugs might enhance neuroplasticity, researchers gathered 23 male volunteers, ages 18 to 27, and gave them either a placebo or valproate for two weeks. The volunteers had little or no previous musical training, but were coached on the basics of pitch and other music concepts.
After two weeks of taking either valproate or a placebo, the volunteers were asked to identify pitch tones: Those who had taken valproate learned how to identify absolute pitch and scored significantly higher than those who had taken the placebo.
"It's quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch," Takao K. Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and co-author of the study, told NPR.
Better learning through chemistry
"It's a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state," Hensch told NPR. This finding suggests that valproate could have some use in teaching adults skills that they would otherwise have difficulty mastering.
"There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones," Hensch said. "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 any drug to enhance learning by inducing greater neuroplasticity also poses some thorny ethical issues: "I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason, and it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly," Hensch said.
"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 … then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well," Hensch said.