Pitch perfect drugs: A little off-key?

Ella Fitzgerald is believed to have had such perfect pitch that her band tuned up to the sound of her voice. Aged seven, Mozart impressed audiences by naming the note of a pocket watch strike. Four-year-old Mariah Carey sang back pitch-perfect notes to her mother [1]. Musicians in every genre, including Beethoven, Michael Jackson, Chopin and Stevie Wonder, have had the ability to name or produce any given note. But why don’t all of us have perfect pitch? And would music be different if we did?

Someone with perfect pitch can tell which piano key is pressed without looking, and can sing “middle C” without hearing it first. This capacity can come naturally from birth or it can develop early in life, usually between four and six years old. This is a “critical period” [2] when knowledge and practice have a lasting effect on the brain due to ‘neural plasticity’ – the changing of structure, function and organisation of neurons in response to new experiences [3]. Until the 1960s, researchers believed that these changes could only take place in infancy and that the brain’s physical structure became permanent by adulthood. Although this is not entirely true, neural plasticity does decrease as we get older.

A group of enzymes called histone deacetylases (HDACs) play a role in the deterioration of neuroplasticity [4], which has led to suggestions that drugs that stop HDACs working could enhance adults’ abilities to learn new skills, including perfect pitch. Valproate is one such drug – in experiments, it has enabled adult mice to learn skills usually impossible to develop after maturity [5].

More recently, to test the effects of Valproate on perfect pitch specifically, Professor Takao Hensch of Harvard University and his team administered the drug to 24 adult men with no previous musical training for 15 days. These volunteers also watched instructional videos promoting the development of perfect pitch. Data from the study showed that the volunteers performed significantly better on standardized tests of pitch accuracy and recognition compared to controls [6].

Despite these positive results, none of the volunteers actually gained perfect pitch within the 15-day period [7]. The drug’s potential side effects, including tremors, hair loss and liver problems, make it unsuitable for taking over longer periods just in the hope of eventually developing perfect pitch [8]. There may be other downsides to this approach too.

While perfect pitch is highly sought-after in music, it is not a requirement to become a great musician. Violinist Nicola Benedetti does not have perfect pitch and although she would not mind developing it, she warns against pursuing it too much: “Hearing is incredibly delicate,” she says, “and how we hear notes has to be primarily a spiritual experience”. If a drug was developed that enabled anyone to have perfect pitch, it could cause a significant change in the way music is played and perceived. The deep emotion and mysticism of music might then be replaced by a superficial appreciation only for precise pitches.

Whether developing childhood neural plasticity is possible in later life or not, we need to consider what the consequences might be for our brains as well as for our culture. We shape our identities during critical periods in our lives, acquiring language and culture in order to shape our development around our environment. Therefore, as even Dr Hensch cautions, “if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk” [9].

References:

[1] Conradt, Stacy. “The Quick 10: 10 People with Perfect Pitch”. mental_floss (2010). Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/25552/quick-10-10-people-perfect-pitch.

[2] Thomson, Helen. “Learning drugs reawaken grown-up brain’s inner child”. New Scientist (2014). Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24831-learning-drugs-reawaken-grownup-brains-inner-child.html#.VUc_a9pVikp.

[3] “What is Neural Plasticity?”. wiseGEEK (Accessed 4th May 2015). Available at: http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-neural-plasticity.htm.

[4] Morris, M.J., Monteggia, L.M. (2013). Unique functional roles for class I and class II histone deacetylases in central nervous system development and function. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 31(6): 370-381.

[5] McCormick, Rich. “The pill that might give you perfect pitch by altering your brain”. The Verge (2014). Available at: http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/6/5279182/valproate-may-give-humans-perfect-pitch-by-resetting-critical-periods-in-brain.

[6] Gervain, J., Vines, B.W., Chen, L.M., Seo, R.J., Hensch, T.K., Werker, J.F., Young, A.H. (2013). Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 7(102).

[7] Yirka, Bob. “Research suggests Valproate pill could give anyone perfect pitch”. Medical Xpress (2014). Available at: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-valproate-pill-pitch.html.

[8] “Sodium Valproate: Side Effects”. NHS choice. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Medicine-Guides/Pages/MedicineSideEffects.aspx?condition=epilepsy&medicine=sodium%20valproate&preparation=Sodium%20valproate%20200mg%20gastro-resistant%20tablets.

[9] Sorokanich, Robert. “A Pill That Lets Adults Learn Perfect Pitch As Easily As Kids”. Gizmodo (2014). Available at: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/01/a-pill-that-lets-adults-learn-perfect-pitch-as-easily-as-kids/.

Image credit:

http://blog.loogguitars.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/musichead.jpg

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin is an A-level student, currently completing her final year of school in the United Kingdom. She plans on pursuing research into rare genetic disorders and contributing to science communication. Along with writing for The Triple Helix, she also blogs at http://darwinsbeard.net

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