A pill to induce critical periods for learning?

Via an article on psmag.com I discovered a new study how a low dose of drug of Valproate- typically used to combat bipolar disorder and epilepsy- can ‘reopen’ the “critical periods” of learning, which lets the subject learn as if she were a child. Critical period means a timeframe in the development of a child when it’s much easier to learn. Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn e.g. a second language fluently after this critical period, it’s just much harder. But maybe not so, when you take this drug?

From psmag.com:

For the study, Gervain and her research team created a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled test, during which 24 adult men received either a placebo or a small, safe dose of Valproate. After 15 days, all participants watched instructional videos on how to identify the six musical pitch classes in the 12-tone Western musical system. They were then asked to identify the pitch of 18 discreet piano notes. In order to assure accuracy, two weeks later, after the drug had worn off, the opposite treatment was given to each participant (those who initially received Valproate then received a placebo; those who initially received a placebo received Valproate), and they were again asked to identify the pitch classes.

In both tests, those who took the Valproate scored “much higher” in pitch identification accuracy, the implication being that it is possible to learn a complex skill like pitch identification—something usually obtained only in childhood—simply by taking a pill.

“It’s expected,” Gervain says of the promising results, “that any type of learning skill could be enhanced.”

Abstract of the study:

Absolute pitch, the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without a reference point, has a critical period, i.e., it can only be acquired early in life. However, research has shown that histone-deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC inhibitors) enable adult mice to establish perceptual preferences that are otherwise impossible to acquire after youth. In humans, we found that adult men who took valproate (VPA) (a HDAC inhibitor) learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo—evidence that VPA facilitated critical-period learning in the adult human brain. Importantly, this result was not due to a general change in cognitive function, but rather a specific effect on a sensory task associated with a critical-period.

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