Perfect drug for perfect pitch? New study tests valproate

A new study suggests a mood-stabilizing drug could allow adults to learn perfect musical pitch the way kids do. But don't expect the drug to turn you into a rock star just yet.

You're only as young as you think you are. But what if you could re-train your brain to absorb information as easily as a child can?

That's exactly what scientists testing the FDA-approved drug called valproate investigated in study of adults who had little or no musical training yet demonstrated some degree of absolute pitch, an ability to identify or produce the pitch of a musical sound without any reference point.

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Absolute pitch, the scientists say, can only be acquired early in life.

Valproate is currently used to treat epileptic seizures, migraines, and manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder. But scientists wanted to see if the drug had other neurological benefits.

According to the study, titled "Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch" and published recently in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, an adult male brain was able to retain new information as easily as it did during childhood thanks to the mood-balancing drug.

The team of international researchers "learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo -- evidence that VPA (valproate) facilitated critical-period learning in the adult human brain," the report concluded. "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."

Takao Hensch, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology and one of the authors of the valproate study, explained how the drug works. "It's a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state," Hensch told NPR. "It's quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch."

"There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones," Hensch told NPR. "So the idea here was, could we come up with a way that would reopen plasticity, [and] paired with the appropriate training, allow adult brains to become young again?"

As an experiment, half of the 24 adult male participants took the valproate drug, the other half a placebo, and then all were trained to recognize audio tones through a series of tests.

"Given the difficulty of improving AP (absolute pitch) performance in adulthood, we hypothesize that in our task, even a small advantage in pitch class identification in the VPA as compared to the placebo group is suggestive of the reopening of plasticity, as musically naive participants were trained for a relatively short time period on several pitch classes, conditions under which no existing study has shown any improvement in AP (absolute pitch)," the scientists reported in the study.

No, this pill won't make you talented
As exciting as these initial findings might sound, don't rush out to buy valproate hoping to win the next "American Idol."

"Certain aspects of our findings warrant further discussion," the scientists conclude at the end of their study. "It was not possible to establish baseline performance on the AP (absolute pitch) task, as the association between the musical notes and the names was necessarily established during training."

The study did not measure reaction times, which "constitute a relevant measure to use in future follow-up studies." The size of the group tested was also smaller than other recent absolute-pitch studies.

"If further studies continue to reveal specificity of VPA to the AP task (or to tasks on which training or intervention is provided), critical information will have been garnered concerning when systemic drug treatments may safely be used to reopen neural plasticity in a specific, targeted way," the scientists conclude.

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