Monday, January 13, 2014

Smart Pills

I know this is going to sound like one of those ads that turns up in your inbox touting the discovery of some miracle drug that will bestow all sorts of amazing capabilities, usually of a sexual nature, upon whomever shells out a couple hundred dollars and their bank account number to the advertiser. But it's not, it's apparently a legitimate and remarkable scientific development.

Researchers at Harvard believe they've found a drug that actually restores the brain's capacity for learning back to what it was when it was at its peak at age seven. Here's the crux of the story:
[W]hat if it were possible for the adult mind to revert back to a more porous state of learning?

That's the subject of an investigation by Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, who is studying a drug that may make it dramatically easier for grown-ups to absorb new skills and information — almost as if they were seven years old or younger.

The key ingredient here is valproic acid. Normally, it's used to treat neurological disorders like seizures and epilepsy, and various other mood disorders. But Hensch claims it may help restore plasticity in the adult brain.

In a new experiment, Hensch used valproic acid to bestow the gift of perfect pitch to a group of adult males between the ages of 18 to 27. Here's how NPR describes it:
Hensch gave the drug to a group of healthy, young men who had no musical training as children. They were asked to perform tasks online to train their ears, and at the end of a two-week period, tested on their ability to discriminate tone, to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at their age.

In other words, he gave people a pill and then taught them to have perfect pitch. The findings are significant: "It's quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch," he says.
"Plasticity in the adult brain," the story says. I don't know if valproic acid works, but if it turns out to be safe, and if it helps folks whose brains no longer have any more plasticity than their joints do, I want some.