Kids’ brains are clearly designed for learning. Todders easily acquire multiple languages. Children learn musical instruments much more easily than adults, and early musical training makes it easier to attain perfect pitch. In fact, kids and teenagers pick up a variety of skills and abilities much more quickly than we do as adults.
This facility in learning is probably attributable to the fact children’s brains are “plastic,” and easily molded. Young children must be able to learn many skills quickly, in order to function in the world. Older people lose significant brain plasticity. As our personalities become more settled, we find it more challenging to learn and change.
Researchers are looking into ways we may be able to recover some of that childlike neural plasticity. Richard Friedman, a clinical psychiatry professor and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical Center, recently described the research in an opt-ed for The New York Times.
Friedman describes an experiment in which scientists gave the antidepressant
valproate to a group of 24 “musically naive” young male subjects. The drug elevated their ability to learn how to identify specific musical pitches, as compared to men who had received a placebo.
Valproate was chosen because it suppresses a protein that apparently acts to halt that critical learning period. The researchers published their work in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. They write that if this study is supported by future research:
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 study did have some limitations. The researchers controlled for general cognitive changes that may have been caused by the drug, but the test group was small and the only subjects were men in a certain age group. The research is certainly not conclusive.
Other researchers are working in the same area, some experimenting to determine whether electrical stimulation can promote neuroplasticity. So much of the functioning of the brain is still unknown, but scientists are poised on the frontier of a new wave of knowledge.