The research was done across several research centres, including Harvard University in the US. It was published in an online edition of Frontiers in systems neuroscience in December.
The research is based on our understanding of the brain’s ‘plasticity’ during childhood. ‘Neuroplasticity’ refers to how our brains are able to change and adapt throughout our lives. Because children’s brains are still growing, they are better able to change than adult brains.
This ability to adapt makes learning easier in childhood. This is what’s known as the ‘critical period’, when children are most easily able to learn languages, for instance. As we grow, certain enzymes in the body close this critical period. As adults, our brains can still learn and adapt, just not quite as well.
Certain skills are best learned in childhood because the brain changes seen in the critical period remain in our brains for the rest of our lives. For instance, this research focused on musical pitch.
The ability to recognise and reproduce notes accurately is a skill that is usually learned during the critical period. In fact, it is virtually impossible for an adult to learn perfect pitch after the period has closed. According to study author Takao Hensch, “there are no known cases of an adult successfully acquiring it”.
Takao Hensch and his team wanted to see if it was possible to block the enzymes in our bodies that close the critical period. If they were successful, the brain would increase its neuroplasticity and be able to learn much more easily.
Valproic acid is a drug that is known to stop some enzymes being produced, so it was a natural choice for the study. A group of adult males with no musical training were split into two smaller groups. One was given valproic acid while the other was given a placebo. The men were then asked to perform online tasks, designed to train them recognise notes.
The men who had taken valproic acid scored higher than those who had taken a placebo. This confirms what the researchers suspected – that valproic acid can encourage plasticity in the brain. This may be valuable knowledge in understanding how valproic acid works when prescribed for mood disorders. Even when certain behaviours are ‘hard wired’ in the adult brain, the drug allows pathways to be more easily adapted and reconstructed in the brain – thereby modifying behaviour.