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A Pill For ‘Brain Youth’?

Imagine a pill that could rewire your brain. Would make your brain young again. Able to learn and absorb like a five-year old. Music. Languages. Would you take it?

(Creative Commons / FlamePhoenix1991)" href="http://media.wbur.org/wordpress/12/files/2014/01/brain.jpg">An imagine of the human brain. New research into brain plasticity suggests that a generic pill could change the brain's ability to absorb and retain new skills, like language, music and more. (Creative Commons / FlamePhoenix1991)

An imagine of the human brain. New research into brain plasticity suggests that a generic pill could change the brain’s ability to absorb and retain new skills, like language, music and more. (Creative Commons / FlamePhoenix1991)

The brains of children are magnificently flexible, adaptable.  They are super-sponges for learning.  They have a sublime plasticity.  And then we age.  And our brains lose that plasticity.  Become more rigid.  Learning, adapting, becomes tougher.  But what if you could take a pill that took your brain back to that childlike state?  Wide open to learning Swahili or Mandarin or perfect pitch.  Would you do it?  A new study says it may be possible.  A pill to learn a skill.  But what if it unbuckled your whole personality too?  Like a child’s?  This hour On Point:  thinking about a pill to make the brain young again.

– Tom Ashbrook


Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology and professor of neurology in Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Allan Young, psychopharmacologist and director of the Centre for Affective Disorders at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry.

From Tom’s Reading List

Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience: Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch — “Absolute pitch, the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without a reference point, has a critical period, i.e., it can only be acquired early in life. However, research has shown that histone-deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC inhibitors) enable adult mice to establish perceptual preferences that are otherwise impossible to acquire after youth. In humans, we found that adult men who took valproate (VPA) (a HDAC inhibitor) learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo—evidence that VPA facilitated critical-period learning in the adult human brain.”

New Scientist: Learning drugs reawaken grown-up brain’s inner child –”From bilingualism to sporting prowess, many abilities rely on neural circuits that are laid down by our early experiences. Until the age of 7 or so, the brain goes through several “critical periods” during which it can be radically changed by the environment. During these times, the brain is said to have increased plasticity.”

Discover: “Plasticity Pill” Could Rewire Brain to Treat Autism and Schizophrenia – “Today, a growing number of researchers are examining the complex ways in which immune molecules affect the brain and nervous system. Manipulating such molecules, these scientists believe, may be key to treating many devastating neurological ailments, from autism and schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s and ALS. Shatz even dreams of a ‘plasticity pill’ to restore the neural suppleness of stroke victims — and her latest experiments offer hope that it could someday come to pass. “

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  • TheLoudestYeller

    I’ve been reading about this and find it really interesting. I would love to know what the implications might be for criminal behavior and psychology. Could you open up the developmental portion of a brain that was damaged by trauma and rewire it?

  • RolloMartins

    I’ve been on Valproic Acid for about 5 years now, all the while trying to learn Spanish. Not going so…um, bueno. Rats.

  • 1Brett1

    As far as Valproic Acid/Valproate/Depakote, there are a lot of unwanted effects (this medication was used for years as an anti-seizure drug) and long-term effects would not be a reasonable trade-off for having perfect pitch, in my opinion. Besides, relative pitch is preferable in actually playing a musical instrument, and that is learned through ear training (training the brain the old-fashioned way).

    As for the New Scientist, if environment plays the role that this quote suggests, and I believe it does, then asking a drug to mimic the brain’s adaptability and learning in formative environmental experiences is asking something of a drug that seems too risky. Old experiences would need to be “replaced”/”erased”/”unlearned,” in a way, with new experiences, so there would need to be a two-fold effect of the drug: 1) alter the brain neurologically and 2) introduce new experiences while under the influence of the drug over long-term use.

    The Discover quote was interesting…I believe it would be better to find ways identifying and preventing such diseases of the brain in antecedent ways than to attempt reversing the damage incurred by the diseases. Developing both approaches would be helpful; the latter seems more difficult to achieve.

  • Fiscally_Responsible

    Totally off topic, but a good laugh today. I saw a cartoon that said “It’s so cold outside that the Democrats had their hands in their own pockets!”

    • Ray in VT

      But Republicans still want to get their hands on my wife’s reproductive system.

      • John Cedar

        Word on the street is republicans are willing to compromise and settle for women agreeing not to kill their babies the day before they are born.

        • Ray in VT

          Huh. I thought that the word on the street was that the Republicans were working to legislate abortion out of existence via weeks limits, “fetal pain” “research”, regulations to health clinics in ways deemed unnecessary by the medical community and to try to limit its coverage in health insurance plan. Late term abortions are pretty highly regulated already and relatively fairly rare.

      • Fiscally_Responsible

        Not true. They simply want to stop the Democrats from murdering the most innocent and helpless in our society.

        • Ray in VT

          A blob at cells a few weeks after conception isn’t a person. Even after the fetus starts to begin looking human, it lacks many basic functions that would allow it to survive.

          My sister had a late term abortion when it became clear that there was no chance for survival. Would you have had her carry that pregnancy to term in order for her to birth a baby that would not survive.

        • TFRX

          Somewhere at a carnival I swear I heard a barker’s call.

          Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up and see the only libertarian in captivity who doesn’t recite right-wing Christianist dogma!

          • 1Brett1

            Was probably a fake!

    • nkandersen

      We’re glad that you found this funny; we might ask that you and others try to keep comments limited to the topic at hand in the future. Thanks for posting!

      nick andersen
      web producer | on point radio

  • John Cedar

    Christie was the lead joke on Jon Stewart last night. What a surprise.
    Did Christie learn nothing from the denial response speech that Obama has perfected? Act shocked, say “IF its true it will not be tolerated”, promise to investage and then never do so.

    • nkandersen

      John — seems like this comment is more meant for our Friday week in the news show. Feel free to post it there tomorrow!

      nick andersen
      web producer | on point radio

      • John Cedar

        Thank you for taking a moment to politely communicate your expectations.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Who needs a pill? I’m still 5: Everyday is an exciting new adventure into the realm of possibility!

    • hennorama

      MMTCW — agreed. I also recommend, for the sheer joy of them:

      splashing through rainpuddles
      jumping for joy
      running around like a 5 year-old

      and all the other simple things one can do to lead a joy-filled life.

      Do something silly today – your psyche will thank you for it.

  • 1Brett1

    When the neocons on this forum can’t even properly read a weekly calendar (so far comments from the usual suspects have nothing to do with the topic today and would be better suited to the ‘Friday free-for-all’ that is the Weekly Round-up…and even that would be a stretch for some of these comments) or even the forum’s topic of the day (clearly presented above), then one must question their ability to participate at all.

    • nkandersen

      Regardless of political stripe, Brett, some people just want a place to leave an angry comment. We get the impulse, but hope we can all stay within the forum framing.

      nick andersen
      web producer | on point radio

      • hennorama

        nkandersen — tongue firmly in cheek here:

        Does the lack of impulse control demonstrated by those who post comments that are off-topic indicate that those forum members have already taken their “brain back to [a] childlike state”?

      • 1Brett1

        I debated whether to even make my comment…and I thank you for your attention; hopefully, this can help keep us all on track!

  • Ray in VT

    I’m not sure if I would (relating to the question posited in the lead in). I’m more than just a bit skeptical other things that offer some sort of fundamental change to my brain. I have known a few people who have expounded upon the mind altering affects certain drugs and how favorably they view them. My response: I’m good, thanks. Granted, this is more than a bit different than a hallucinogen, but I would still be wary.

    • TFRX

      I’m already imagining the sci-fi coming out of this. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of this after all.

      • Ray in VT

        There was a Star Trek TNG that sort of addressed that same theme, although the character didn’t just keep getting younger. His body’s physiology just became unstable. Are you a Dwarfer by any chance? The episode Backwards comes to mind somewhat tangentally.

        • TFRX

          Red Dwarf wasn’t broadcast much near me, otherwise I’d have watched more of it.

          • Ray in VT

            I caught it on PBS back in the day, and I just bought it. If you go that route, then don’t get the remastered edition. They improved the graphics and cut out some minor stuff. It really irked me.

            One of my favorite exchanges:

            Cat [to Rimmer]: What is it?
            Rimmer: It’s a rent in the space-time continuum.
            Cat [to Lister]: What is it?Lister: The stasis room freezes time, you know, makes time stand still. So whenever you have a leak, it must preserve whatever it’s leaked into, and it’s leaked into this room.
            Cat [to Rimmer]: What is it?
            Rimmer: It’s singularity, a point in the universe where the normal laws of space and time don’t apply.
            Cat [to Lister]: What is it?
            Lister: It’s a hole back into the past.
            Cat: Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn’t you say?


            I once went to a masquerade ball in college as Rimmer, and I have been known to regale people with my past game campaigns.

          • Ray in VT

            I think that it used to be shown on both VPT and WCFE.

  • Jon

    relentless pursuit of immortality

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    “TV commercials for a popping pill culture

    Drug companies circling like a vulture”

    Michael Franti from “Yell Fire”

  • Ray in VT

    As a Response to Tom’s lead in, I have found few things in life as amazing as the ability of children to absorb information.

  • Rebecca Abbott

    One of the reasons young children have such neural plasticity is that they have MANY more neural synapses, which they start to lose in later childhood and throughout teenage years. This excess of synapses allows them to learn very fast, a key survival adaptation. How can adults achieve this very specific sort of plasticity?

  • Government_Banking_Serf

    Well there is that old saying along the lines of if you’re not liberal when your 20, you don’t have a heart, and if your not conservative when your 50, you don’t have a brain.

    Perhaps the DNC found its new wonder drug!

    • Government_Banking_Serf

      Cheeky, but there may be something interesting there regarding youth, aging, genetics, evolution and sociology.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        If it can be proven that people lose their heart as they age, maybe we should take away the right to vote to those 50 or older. Or, at least mandate that they take a pill to enhance their heart and ability to be connected to and concerned for others.

        • Government_Banking_Serf

          And dump the Wisdom? Its all important. Learn from kids, learn from elders.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            We are talking about the deterioration of qualities as you age, and what medical intervention we can mandate to take care of this social problem and threat to society that older folks represent. Just like we pass laws that take away an elder’s right to drive a motor vehicle. King Lear, Kim Jong-il, Cheney, Reagan in office until senile, are all examples of the old retaining power for too long. They don’t need to be falsely glorified as “wise.” Their intelligence was biologically deteriorating. They need to take an enhancement pill or get off the world stage.

          • Government_Banking_Serf

            Maybe we could just outlaw freedom of expression after age 35, and save money on the pharmaceutical development.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            Or. give the right to vote to the ‘enhanced people’ and those who choose to be ‘naturals’ (and thus biologically inferior) forfeit their right to vote.

          • Government_Banking_Serf

            We’re being facetious, right?

    • John Cedar

      Its not a “saying” its an “axiom”.

    • ExcellentNews

      That was the OLD saying. The NEW saying is “If you are a working stiff and conservative – you have no brain. If you are a banker/CEO/owner and liberal – you have no brain”. Notice that any mention of heart has been dropped…

      • Government_Banking_Serf

        Too bad that half of that fantasy axiom has no empirical proof, with the likes of Summers, Rubin, Geithner, Bernanke and various CEOs are all too happy to embrace the Democratic Party.

        I happen to not support the establishment conservatives any more than the establishment Dems. That, is the real no-brainer!

    • Duras

      Conservatives use old sayings, clichés, and echo the thoughts of a couple nuanced thinkers (on Fox News).

      Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” but republicans don’t think. Republicans just quote and yet they still exist.

  • hennorama

    Ann Marie — I think it’s OK to mention the Eastman School of Music, which was established in 1921 by George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.


  • Coastghost

    “Brain plasticity”: was this notion ever attached formally to clinical descriptions of experience with lysergic acid? Lysergic acid lends itself to at least seem to enhance brain plasticity, from at least some reports, if I understand “brain plasticity” as generalized and acute curiosity with intellectual malleability, along with collection and organization of experience.
    (I would not test lysergic acid for its ability to help confer perfect pitch, however.)

    • 1Brett1

      As to your parenthetic statement at the end of your comment: the overtones alone from striking a note on a stringed instrument would send the mind reeling…

  • Matt Bowen

    So… If we learned that Justin Timberlake had been using “the pill” would we have to take away his Grammy Awards for having used performance enhancing substances?

  • Roberto1194

    As we know that increased anxiety and stressors can significantly change thinking plasticity and resilience…
    I’m curious to know if -in the course of screening your subjects- you were also able to discern how family mindsets, living environments, and life experiences may have affected plasticity in positive -or negative- ways(?); And how these aspects are related to the effective application of plasticity enhancements.
    Also: Some clues into the possible synergies of meds with other mental health enhancing practices?

  • jalapenomom

    Is there any increase of “co-morbidities” where perfect pitch is more frequently seen in people with disorders (ADHD, bipolar d/o, autism)?

  • James Solheim

    I have an idea why the drug affects perfect pitch and not language learning. My daughter has perfect pitch and I’m a writer who learned Norwegian as an adult. When I first went to Norway I had trouble with the “R” in Bergen because Americans don’t recognize the back-of-the-throat “R” as language. It’s not that I couldn’t hear it. It’s that people weed out non-language sounds when interpreting sounds as language. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize a sound. Not recognizing a sound as language is not the same as not hearing it. It is the ability to weed it out as not-language, which is what allows us to pick out words from background.

    • Don_B1

      I remember learning of American Indian tribes which use a sound that is not perceived by non-tribe people unless they were associated with the tribe in infancy, and your post probably explains that.

  • Bonnie Pomfret

    As a music professor for 30+ years, I am telling you that every music student who hears about this will want to take it. Those required courses in Theory and Ear Training are very much easier for those who have absolute pitch!!!

  • lobstahbisque

    Ya either got perfect pitch or ya don’t. And perfect pitch is only magical for people who don’t have it. RELATIVE pitch, the ability to identify intervals is equally important for playing ‘in tune.’

    • 1Brett1

      I found it interesting that the control group was selected for their lack of musical training/experience but that there was no mention of any pre-experiment testing… Did it occur to the researchers to test everyone before the experiment to determine if anyone had any natural ear for pitch?

  • Expanded_Consciousness
  • tbphkm33

    A society that takes way too many pills to start with.

    Plus, no pill is going to help people get smarter. Maybe they can memorize and regurgitate more efficiently, but too many will still lack basic critical thinking skills.

    Also, lets not forget that the brain is like any organ, it need exercise. This is a population that is addicted to mindless TV, ever shorter snippets of information and in general not running their brains very hard. No pill needed – pickup a book, buy a puzzle, have a good discussion with an intellectual. In short, use what you have. Learning comes at all ages. Just like a teenager has an easier time staying in shape than an overweight old person, so does an inactive mind have a difficult time starting back up.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      You’re in the pill-denial phase.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      You might as well be advocating for people to throw away their eyeglasses, contact lenses, and laser surgeries and, instead, just do eye exercises and eat carrots. Keep it natural and abstain from new technologies! It ain’t gonna happen. The future needs to be prepared for. Nothing stays the same. Reactionaries are never right.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Since arriving on the scene, humans have been changing the outer environment like no other animal. Changing the inner structure of the brain is quite the turning point.

  • passarinha

    Does anyone know: are there any non-medication options (nutrition, meditation, exercise etc.) that may inhibit HDAC at all?

  • Questions

    Wow- this idea is full of experimental potential… One I would be interested in is the area of personality disorders. Scientists are still on fence about how much of personality development is genetic vs environmental. So, take some individuals with personality disorders like Narcissism and psychopathy – with trademark lack of empathy – give them plasticity pill, induce empathy training, and than brain scan them to see if they acquire empathy. Dr. Raine is one in field of neuro science doing brain scanning of incarcerated inmates w/ psychopathy. They show reducd brain activities in areas involved with empathy. This could answer the age old question of nature vs. nurture, right?

    • Questions

      And also provide the societal benefit of reducing individuals who lack empathy- these are the people capable and mostly responsible for a lot of ourviolent crime.. Pedophiles, serial killers, mass shooters…. It would be a huge benefit to society. Are you listening NIH/ congress?

  • Jennifer

    Im curious how long the learned skill lasts and if it is only skills with an auditory component. Is it only while you take the pill or is there permanent learning?? I love the idea but wouldn’t want to take a pill for the rest of my life.

  • Edward Moriarty

    As Nurse for 42 years, I feel it is irresponsible to discuss Valproic Acid in a manner that will leave listeners the impression that it is an innocuous drug. This drug has many severe and long lasting side effects and the thought that someone may begin taking this medication from a prescription that a family member has laying around( it is not uncommon for patients on long term Valproic Acid treatment for seizures or mood disorders to stop taking medications due to side effects) and many homes may have old prescriptions of Valproic laying around the house. It is very important that your listeners understand this drug should not be given except under direct medical supervision. You speak of this drug in a manner to make sound like a miracle drug…….this will lead to more people deciding to use this drug just because it is vailable in their household. YOU NEED TO EMPHASIZE THE NEED FOR DIRECT MEDICAL SUPERVSION! This can be a dangerous drug with long lasting serious negative consequences.

  • JKJ

    Could this type of treatment be used in conjunction with our therapies/treatments that require early intervention for patients with neurological deficiencies? Let’s say a new drug comes out to cure some neurological disease but it only works if used at a very early age, I wonder if this could be used to bring the brain back to that point so the treatment may work for older patients,

  • nkandersen

    Just trying to be polite and encourage a future of gentle expression on this forum on all fronts..

    nick andersen
    web producer | on point radio

  • ExcellentNews

    Truly interesting. The discipline of neuroscience is still in its infancy. It will open revolutionary avenues for mankind, just like the study of electricity or organic chemistry did 100 years ago. We need to fund such research and make sure we have a national policy to stay in the lead of it.

  • cheddar_george

    Super-interesting topic, as Tom’s segments usually are.

    However if I had been one of the test subjects then I would definitely liked to have known (beforehand) that valproate also has a track record of causing serious liver damage too. (though, admittedly, I’m guessing that’s probably more related to long-term usage).

    So, increased brain plasticity and potential liver damage, or stay as I already am? Hmm. Tough one.

    Mind you, studies like this will no doubt one day lead to safe methods of achieving said plasticity, and it’s exciting to think that this could easily happen in the next few years.

  • geraldfnord

    This would be (try the veal) a no-brainer for me, so long as it were reasonably safe. I’m trans-humanist, which means (to subvert a speech of Capt. Malcolm Reynolds’) that ‘trying to make people better’ sounds like a ripping good idea. (Why want to improve people? Well, for one thing, I’ve met some.)

    Put it another way: how much would you pay to avoid your brain’s becoming even _less_ plastic than it were?

  • Robert

    I feel there are some real medical benefits possible with this drug, but I find that loss of plasticity in the brain with aging may be more of a sign of wisdom and a good thing – when learning has shown us what to avoid, rather than an unwanted “disability.” As for psychiatric applications – the potential for misuse and going back to trying to turn people into robots who don’t conform to some political agenda is still a real political threat. Just because the FDA approves these drugs doesn’t mean they are harmless, or there is not a potential for misuse.

  • Duras

    I wonder what the pill would do to memory.

  • LeanFellix

    my Aunty Lillian just got an almost new yellow Lexus GS 450h Sedan by working part time off of a macbook air… why not try this out

  • LeanFellix

    …—goo.gl/HDNWYa (Home more)

  • Susan Weinstein

    Tom, your ready agreement with the use of a prescription medication for this study is startling. Just because a medication is available in a generic form does not mean that it’s safe for all purposes. Valproic acid is approved by the FDA for specific uses only, particularly in the treatment of bipolar disorder, as an anti-seizure medication, and for prevention of migraine headaches. Using this medication in “healthy” brains is extremely worrisome and there is no real basis for thinking that this is a safe application merely because the medication has been around long enough to be available in generic form.

Aug 21, 2014
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An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
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We’ll look at workers trying to live and make a living in the age of TaskRabbit and computer-driven work schedules.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

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