Science & Environment
7:19 am
Sat January 4, 2014

Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop A Pill For That

Originally published on Fri April 25, 2014 9:13 am

In the world of music, there is no more remarkable gift than having perfect pitch. As the story goes, Ella Fitzgerald's band would use her perfect pitch to tune their instruments.

Although it has a genetic component, most believe that perfect pitch — or absolute pitch — is a primarily a function of early life exposure and training in music, says Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard.

Hensch is studying a drug which might allow adults to learn perfect pitch by re-creating this critical period in brain development. Hensch says the drug, valproic acid, allows the brain to absorb new information as easily as it did before age 7.

"It's a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state," Hensch tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

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.


Interview Highlights

On whether the drug could be used to teach other skills

There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones. 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?

On the likelihood of the drug becoming common for learning new languages

I think we are getting closer to this day, because we are able to understand at greater cellular detail how the brain changes throughout development. But I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason, and it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly.

If we've shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised --acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the world of music, there is no greater gift than having perfect pitch, or absolute pitch. For example, this note on a piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

WERTHEIMER: Now, someone with perfect pitch would be able to recognize that note as middle C, and they wouldn't need to refer to any other reference but their brain. The story goes that Ella Fitzgerald's band would use her perfect pitch to tune their own instruments. But is it something you are born with or is it something you can learn? Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology Takao Hensch joins us to talk about his study on a pill that might give us the answer. Takao Hensch, thanks so much for joining us.

TAKAO HENSCH: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, can you just begin by explaining why people have perfect pitch in the first place? Is it in their genes?

HENSCH: Well, there are a lot of thoughts about this. There seems to be some relationship to genetics, perhaps. But primarily, people believe it's a function of early life experience or training or exposure to music.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just walk us through how your study worked? What did you actually do?

HENSCH: This study was an investigation of adult brain plasticity and whether we could reopen it through the use of a drug called valproic acid. It's a mood-stabilizing drug. But we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state. And during a two-week period on this pill or a controlled substance, a healthy cohort of young adult male subjects who were carefully screened not to have had musical experience early in life, they were asked to undertake a number of training tests online. And at the end of this two-week period, they were then tested on their ability to discriminate tones to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at this age.

WERTHEIMER: So, you actually gave people a pill and then you taught them to have perfect pitch?

HENSCH: This is the result and it's quite remarkable, since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I understand that you also studied that you might be able to use this plasticity to teach language.

HENSCH: Yes. In fact, there are a number of examples of critical period-type development; language being one of the most obvious ones. And so the idea here was could we come up with a way that would reopen plasticity, paired with the appropriate training, allow adult brains to become young again.

WERTHEIMER: What an extraordinary idea. What do you think the chances are that, say, 10 years, 20 years down the road that it might actually be possible to suddenly be able to teach people who don't speak French to speak French or people who never even heard Chinese to speak it?

HENSCH: I think we're getting closer to this day because we are able to understand at greater cellular detail how the brain changes throughout development. But I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly.

WERTHEIMER: What does that mean?

HENSCH: Well, if we've shaped our identities through development, through a critical period and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised, acquiring language, culture, identity, then if we were to erase that by reopening a critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

WERTHEIMER: And are you convinced that it might be possible to do it without erasing anything you wanted to keep?

HENSCH: I think the results of this study are quite encouraging from that point of view. What the pill provides is an opportunity.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you so much for joining us. Takao Hensch. He is a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University. This is so interesting. Thank you.

HENSCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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