Wish You Had Perfect Pitch? Researchers Find Epilepsy Drug May Help Adults Develop Rare Skill

By Louise Burton on Jan 07, 2014 02:02 AM EST

Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is the ability to accurately name any pitch you hear. People with perfect pitch can sing any note of the chromatic scale without hearing reference pitches first.

Until recently, perfect pitch was thought to be an innate ability that very few children possessed. The American Psychological Association estimates that only one in 10,000 Americans have the gift.

But according to a research report published last week, scientists have discovered that Valproate, a drug used to treat epilepsy, can help adults develop perfect pitch.

Research had shown that the drug enabled adult mice to learn habits that were previously only possible for mice to learn during youth.

Harvard researcher Takao Hensch and an international team of scientists, then, decided to give Valproate to a group of adult men who had no prior musical training. They asked the group to complete an online ear-training course that lasted for two weeks.

At the end of the trial, those who took Valproate were significantly better at identifying pitches than those taking a placebo.

Hensch, who is a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, recently discussed the research team's findings with Linda Wertheimer of NPR. "It's a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state," Hensch said.

In other words, the drug seems to restore the ability to learn certain tasks that were once thought impossible to learn outside of childhood.

Of course, the implications of such a drug are enormous. It could help adults learn a new language and speak that language without an accent, abilities which are thought to peak in early childhood.

For a long time, perfect pitch was thought to be a result of nature, not nurture.

In the NPR interview, Hensch acknowledges that there is a genetic component. But he and many other researchers believe that perfect pitch can be acquired, through early musical training before age seven.

Other researchers disagree, saying that the ability to develop perfect pitch is genetic and can't be taught.

However, there is one point on which researchers tend to agree: It is impossible for adults to develop perfect pitch.

Many musicians regard perfect pitch as the holy grail, the ultimate musical gift. Mozart had perfect pitch, and many experts think Beethoven had it also.

The ability to instantly identify whether any pitch is sharp or flat can help string players play in tune. The ability to sing any pitch can help singers navigate densely chromatic music.

And perfect pitch can help any musician sight-read a difficult score. A drug that could aid adults in developing this ability would probably prove extremely popular among musicians.

But Hensch warns that scientists are only beginning to understand how Valproate affects the brain's ability to learn new things. And the drug is known to have side effects.

So, it may be a long time before Valproate is available to consumers for this purpose. And those who take such a medication may find that perfect pitch has its downside.

Those who have it might not enjoy listening to an orchestra that tunes to a concert "A" that is a little sharp or flat, as some orchestras do. And hearing the out-of-tune pitches of electric appliances, train whistles and other background noises in our environment could become annoying for a whole new reason.

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TagsPerfect pitch, absolute pitch, Mozart, Beethoven, epilepsy drug, Valproate, Takao Hensch, Harvard, Frontiers, NPR, Linda Wertheimer

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