A child’s brain can master anything from language to music. Can neuroscience extend that genius across the lifespan?
Hensch decided to test for the enhancement after hearing Diana Deutsch, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, report that perfect pitch had a critical period, much like language and other cognitive skills. He decided to use valproate because it belonged to a class of enzymes (the histone-deacetylase inhibitors) that helped adult mice establish perceptual preferences otherwise impossible to acquire after youth. What if valproate could help people acquire something as nuanced as pitch?
To find out, his team placed 24 male volunteers on either the drug or a placebo for 15 days and asked them to watch a 10-minute pitch training video daily in the final week. The participants taking valproate did significantly better than chance at learning pitch, while those given the dummy drug did not. ‘That suggests we’ve improved their musical ability. We’ve improved something that is related to the brain’s ability to learn, which should have been fixed,’ Young told me. ‘If we can replicate this, then we have the possibility of thinking, what else could this benefit?’
Amazing. But it still feels like we’re still just poking a hedgehog with a stick and seeing what happens. So much to know.