This Drug Turns Back Time in Your Brain, Until, Like a Kid, You Can Learn New Skills

By increasing neural plasticity, this drug could open your mind to new abilities

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Marc Soller

When we're young, our brains are very adaptable. New neurons grow en masse and fresh connections are forged freely. After all, your brain doesn't know what kind of world it will be born into: will you learn English, or Hindi? Will you be trained to hunt, or to write music? But as we get older and our place in the world firms up, so too do our brains.

For New Scientist, Helen Thomson writes about an amazing new line of research that seeks to harness drugs to return our brains to a more malleable state. The research, if it pans out, could be just the path to teach old dogs new tricks.

Scientists call the brain's ability to adapt "neural plasticity," and it's not only seen in children (though kids' brains are more plastic). Researchers, says Thomson, have found that bouts of enhanced neural plasticity can be triggered using certain pharmaceuticals—drugs that are used regularly to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder. When given to a small group of adults, and tested against a placebo, the drug allowed some people to acquire the ability of perfect pitch.

They chose perfect pitch because it is a rare ability and is usually seen only in some people who were taught music before the age of 6. There are no conclusive examples of adults acquiring it, although people who do months of training can gain some ability to identify notes.

If this line of experimentation has you feeling uneasy, take solace in the fact that the researchers feel that way, too, and are treading cautiously. Thomson:

The brain shuts down critical periods for good reason – it would be disastrous to have it rewiring itself extensively for the rest of your life. Hensch says he would have been timid about testing valproate's effects in humans except for the fact that it is an approved treatment for mood disorders and epilepsy. "We're not opening the brain up to a massive rewrite. We're enhancing its potential for plasticity – which, when paired with training, can manifest in changes we want."

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