Brain Responds To Valproic Acid

Your brain is like a sponge when it is young. Studies have shown that kids pick up up foreign languages faster than adults (though that is up for debate), and that some skills — like “perfect pitch,” which allows gifted vocalists to sing notes with unerring precision — are best nurtured from a young age.

But what 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.

Valproic acid is used to treat neurological disorders, such as seizures, epilepsy and mood disorders. It might help restore plasticity in the 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. 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.

It’s a fascinating development, and one that could theoretically help adults acquire new skills and talents at a later stage in their lives. Of course, the side effects — if any — will still need to be studied closely, particularly on a cellular level. “I should caution that critical periods [of development] have evolved for a reason,” says Hensch, “and it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly.”

Valproic acid exhibits its pharmacologic effects by acting on GABA (γ aminobutyric acid) levels in the central nervous system. GABA blocks transmission across nerves in the brain and has a calming effect.

Valproate was first made in 1881 and came into medical use in 1962. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. It’s marketed under several brand names, including Depakote.

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Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.