Primal Numbers – Skill in a Pill

Usually, the term “baby brain” refers to the time when a pregnant woman’s memory turns into a black hole?a frustrating void of lost car keys and missed appointments. But the brains of babies themselves are incredibly busy, with all circuits firing in an accelerated, highly adaptable learning mode that we lose around age seven. Now, science has found a way to give us back our baby brains. But can we really achieve skill from a pill?

Based on early research, the signs point to a very real possibility that we can master new skills by manipulating a certain enzyme to lay down new circuits in our brains. The foundations of those skills, from catching a baseball to playing a concerto, are shaped by early experiences and built when our brains are in the most adaptable stage of our lives.

As this New Scientist article explains, ?the brain is said to have increased plasticity? during the highly critical phase from birth to about age seven. As we get older, those high levels of plasticity shift into a lower gear, in part because of the enzyme histone deacetylase (HDAC). However, researchers have found that a handful of existing drugs (such as valproate, used to treat bipolar disorder) inhibit HDAC.

The result? Use of the drug, alongside training in a new skill, has shown to be a ?promising first step towards demonstrating that critical-period learning can happen in adults.? And It’s not just for developing a talent like perfect musical pitch. The treatment also shows potential for curing conditions like amblyopia (lazy eye), helping rewire the brain’s circuitry.

In cases where patients have an existing condition or disability, this research could well be a life-changer. But what if a pill truly could help you become a musical genius or science whiz? Would you take it if there was a chance you could reach the top of your chosen career? Before you start practising for your Carnegie Hall solo, ponder this old adage for a moment: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In other words, would you jeopardize the skills you do have on the chance that you could become a famous ball player with incredible reflexes? After all, it stands to reason that putting your brain into rewire mode won’t just make new neural connections. It will probably alter (for better or worse) many of the connections your brain has already built all on its own. Science is still mapping the complex workings of the human brain, and even such outdated myths as being left-brained or right-brained are as persistent as Centaurian slugs.

Then there’s the phenomenon of late bloomers?those great talents who didn’t even approach the starting line until later in life. This Huffington Post article lists nearly a dozen. Like Julia Child, who ?didn’t even learn to cook until she was almost 40 and didn’t launch her popular show until she was 50.? Or Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, who was ?43 when he began drawing his legendary superheroes.?

Rewiring the brain to help with medical conditions? Brilliant. But if I really want to master a new language, I think I’ll do it the old-fashioned way: move to Paris and practice ordering crème-brûlée.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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