Kids have amazing brains. They can pick up two languages in early childhood just as easily as they can learn one. Early childhood also seems to be the key time period when musical training makes it much easier to acquire the skill known as perfect or absolute pitch.
And that’s not all – kids and teens are able to learn certain skills and abilities much more quickly than most adults. In a way, it makes sense that the young brain is so ‘plastic’, or able to be moulded. When we’re young and learning how to navigate the world, and we need to be able to acquire skills and knowledge fast.
As we age, we lose much of that plasticity. Our brains and personalities become more ‘set’ and certain things are harder to learn or change.
As adults in the rapidly changing modern world, where the ability to learn a new skill is perhaps more essential than ever, it’s easy to be jealous of how quickly kids can pick up on things.
But researchers are investigating ways that we might be able to regain some of that youthful neural plasticity, writes Richard Friedman, a clinical psychiatry professor and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical Center, in a recent op-ed for The New York Times.
If those researchers are right, it might be possible for us to one day regain some of our ability to learn like kids.
In one of the experiments that Friedman describes, scientists found that giving the antidepressant valproate to a small group of 24 “musically naive” young adult men significantly boosted their ability to learn to identify specific musical pitches when compared to men given a placebo.
A test of the ability to learn musical pitch is considered a pretty good way to evaluate how plastic a brain is since this ability seems to be strongly linked to the “critical learning period” when kids learn this skill best.
The researchers chose that drug because it suppresses a protein that seems to act as a brake on that critical learning period, the time when kids are able to learn these new abilities so well, they write in their study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.
The researchers add that if their work is confirmed by further studies, “critical information will have been garnered concerning when systemic drug treatments may safely be used to reopen neural plasticity in a specific, targeted way”.
While the researchers controlled their experiment to account for general cognitive changes that might’ve been caused by the drug, their work – like most – still comes with several caveats. First, the test group was small, and only included men of a certain age group. More importantly, the research at this stage is far from conclusive.
And yet in a way, it’s not surprising that drugs might transform the ways our minds operate. Other researchers are experimenting with things like electrical stimulation to try and promote neuroplasticity.
The brain is an incredibly complex organ, frequently described as “the most complex object in the known Universe”. There’s a lot going on in there. Drugs that have an effect on the brain, from antidepressants to psychedelics, may cause powerful long-lasting changes, many of which we’re just starting to learn about.
What would change if we could learn like kids again?
In recent years many of things we’ve thought were facts about the brain have changed. We’ve learned that adults generate new neurons and that certain things like exercise increase the rate of neurogenesis while things like stress decrease it.
In The New York Times, Friedman writes that other researchers have identified ways we might be able to mitigate some of the brain changes caused by early life trauma, though this research is still in the incredibly early animal model stage.
Friedman cautions that there are still many unanswered questions. Could reopening plasticity have a dark side, he asks? Could it make us more vulnerable to stress and trauma, for example, or interfere with our sleep? We don’t know yet.
As Rebecca Boyle writes in Aeon Magazine, the idea is still rough, but it’s full of potential.
“I might be able to immerse myself in music lessons and absorb them more effectively. Others might disable the plasticity brakes before a trip abroad, quickly learning a new language. Still, others might wish to tweak an imperfect golf swing.
The implications are more profound for people with autism spectrum disorders, mental illness and physical disabilities: re‑opening critical periods could help us rebuild the physical structures of our brains, erasing bad connections and wiring them anew.”
And while it’s an idea that’s still far from practical use, that potential is exciting.