Popping a Pill for Perfect Pitch

Child prodigy of music in England, Max Darewski performing as a conductor and also a pianist and composer with perfect pitch. (1903)

Child prodigy of music in England, Max Darewski performing as a conductor and also a pianist and composer with perfect pitch. (1903)

26 February 2014

Researchers use epilepsy drug to develop perfect pitch within individuals with no background in music.

 

Nat King Cole had it. Mozart had it. Jimi Hindrix had it.

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify and recall musical notes from memory without hearing another note for reference. It can only be acquired early in life, a point referred to as the critical period, where this kind of creativity is impossible to learn later on. People either have it, or they don’t.

In Allan H. Young’s lab, a team of researchers in the UK have produced a study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience in which adults took the drug valproate to learn perfect pitch by recreating this critical period in brain development. The mood stabilizing drug valproic acid allows the brain to absorb information as easily as it once did before age seven by inhibiting a chemical that acts as the “brake” on critical-period learning.

A group of adult men with no musical training as children were given the drug. They used pitch training videos to try to differentiate between musical notes. At the end of the two-week period, both a placebo and a valproate drug group were tested. Those who took valproate had learned perfect pitch.

“It’s quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring perfect pitch,” Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, says.

He is optimistic that the pills may become common for learning new languages, an obvious example of critical-learning type development. But this is still in the works. Hensch cautions that critical periods have evolved for a reason; it’s a process that must be handled very carefully.

 

 

Alec Schwartz
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major
Dickinson College
Class of 2016

 

 

 

 

Judit Gervain, Bradley W. Vines, Lawrence M. Chen, Rubo J. Seo, Takao Hensch, Janet F. Werker & Allan H. Young. (3 Dec 2013). Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch. Frontier Systems Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2013.00102

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