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This Is Your Brain

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Illustration of the human brain. (Photo: vasabii/Shutterstock)

The Limitless Drug: What If It Were Possible to Learn Any New Skill as If We Were Children?

• July 16, 2014 • 5:00 AM

Illustration of the human brain. (Photo: vasabii/Shutterstock)

You’ve heard to start studying foreign languages (and music and reading and memorization skills and more) at a young age, when your brain is better prepared to retain that information. New research suggests a drug typically used to combat epilepsy and bipolar disorder could help us retain that skill even as we age.

When Alexander Arguelles was a little boy and his family lived in Italy, he spent his evenings sitting on the living room floor, listening to his father teach himself languages from old grammar books.

Arguelles moved throughout Europe, North Africa, and India as a child, but did not begin his own formal language training until age 11 when he started taking French at the end of primary school. Later, he double majored in French and German at Columbia University, where he also took courses in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, sat in on Chinese, Russian, and Hindi courses, and taught himself Spanish outside of class by speaking with Hispanophones living in New York City. As his father had done, he endeavored to learn any language that interested him, including particularly challenging and obscure dialects such as Old Occitan, Gothic, Frisian, and Modern Provençal.

“Although I spoke only English as a child,” Arguelles later wrote, “I grew up knowing, naturally and instinctively, that the world was full of different languages and that it was possible to know numbers of them because you could teach them to yourself.”

“The effect was quite specific, which implies maybe there’s potential to develop interventions that are targeted and don’t put the whole cognitive system of the individual at risk.”

Arguelles is now fluent in about 36 languages, has studied 60, and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost hyper-polyglots alongside the likes of Timothy Doner, an 18-year-old Dalton School student who speaks 20 languages; Graham Cansdale, a European Commission translator who speaks 14 languages; and Johan Vandewalle, who speaks 22 languages and has been awarded the Polyglot of Flanders/Babel Prize.

Even though Arguelles did not have any languages mastered except his native English until his early teenage years, the mere exposure to so many languages while traveling as a child set him up for linguistic success.

“The brain’s ability to absorb increases as we know more languages,” Loraine Obler, a professor of linguistics at the City University of New York, told the New York Times. “Having a second language at a young age helps you learn a third, even if they’re unrelated.” In fact, even hearing the sounds from different languages at a young age has been proven to be useful in the acquisition of foreign languages later in life.

Similarly, in music, the ability to identify the pitch class of any sound—e.g. a C flat, a D, a G sharp—with 70 to 99 percent accuracy is incredibly rare (less than about 0.01 percent of the population can claim to have this ability). Known as absolute pitch, this skill must be mastered at a very young age, usually before six.

The reason for this is that the ability to learn foreign languages, perfect pitch, and many other skills that require a sponge-like mind (including reading speed and memorization of unusually large amounts of information) decreases as we age.

Although frustrating for the budding linguist, singer, or intellectual, the idea is that one must lose an ability in order to shore up another. In order to assure that you’ve mastered pronunciations in your mother tongue, for instance, your brain makes it more difficult to speak freely in different accents, and therefore to speak other languages like a native.

“One becomes less proficient or less competent in one domain so as to be better in another,” says Judit Gervain, a research scientist in the Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception at the Université Paris 5 René Descartes, whom I spoke with in her Paris office. Brakes, essentially, are put on neuroplasticity as we age. Clearly, these breaks have evolutionary use, but it is still vexing when we’re struggling to learn new languages, speak with a proper accent, memorize information, or sing and identify pitch later in life.

But what if we were able to maintain this sponge-like neurological ability even as we grew older? What if it were possible to learn any skill as if we were children?

Gervain, the principle researcher behind a study entitled “Valproate Reopens Critical-Period Learning of Absolute Pitch,” found that, with low doses of Valproate—a drug typically used to combat bipolar disorder and epilepsy—the brain’s neuroplasticity could be expanded, thereby reopening the “critical periods” of learning, which lets the subject learn as if she were a child.

For the study, Gervain and her research team created a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled test, during which 24 adult men received either a placebo or a small, safe dose of Valproate. After 15 days, all participants watched instructional videos on how to identify the six musical pitch classes in the 12-tone Western musical system. They were then asked to identify the pitch of 18 discreet piano notes. In order to assure accuracy, two weeks later, after the drug had worn off, the opposite treatment was given to each participant (those who initially received Valproate then received a placebo; those who initially received a placebo received Valproate), and they were again asked to identify the pitch classes.

In both tests, those who took the Valproate scored “much higher” in pitch identification accuracy, the implication being that it is possible to learn a complex skill like pitch identification—something usually obtained only in childhood—simply by taking a pill.

“It’s expected,” Gervain says of the promising results, “that any type of learning skill could be enhanced.”

Yet ethical considerations abound. As this science develops, it is likely that Valproate and similar drugs could be used for personal enrichment, for improving oneself to a near infinite extreme.

It is already clear that those with money are willing to pay for human enhancements—for plastic surgery, for generic nootropics, for “wearables” like Google Glass. It would therefore follow that a drug like Valproate, which could allow for huge leaps in intelligence and abilities, would also quickly become popular among a certain class. One of the problems with this increasingly possible hypothetical—and with human enhancement in general—is that we could witness a socioeconomic split far greater than what we’ve already seen. There would still be the socioeconomic “haves” and “have nots,” but now it would not just be that some have money and others do not but that some would have unnaturally advanced intellectual abilities and others would not.

Although the behavioral effects of Valproate are well researched, the microscopic molecular changes that occur in the brain as a result of Valproate use are not yet as well understood. Obviously, it is dangerous to disrupt cognitive processes and Valproate increases neuroplasticity by unnaturally re-opening the brain’s critical periods. There is an evolutionary reason for the way our brains develop as they do, and it wouldn’t be difficult to potentially disrupt other critical cognitive functions by tinkering with critical periods and neuroplasticity.

But just as the popular psychostimulant Adderall is often used outside of its intended prescription—taken to achieve bursts of intense focus, rather than as a modulator for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—it would not be a surprise to see Valproate soon taken in low doses as an aid while brushing up on one’s Latin or “doe-rae-me” scale.

The ability to learn foreign languages, perfect pitch, and many other skills that require a sponge-like mind (including reading speed and memorization of unusually large amounts of information) decreases as we age.

Yet Gervain says her test results showed that it is unlikely that Valproate would be hazardous to other parts of the cognitive system. “The effect was quite specific,” she says, “which implies maybe there’s potential to develop interventions that are targeted and don’t put the whole cognitive system of the individual at risk.”

This is perhaps the biggest breakthrough of Gervain’s study. Previous “cognitive enhancing drugs” such as modafinil (Provigil), dimethylamylamine (DMAA), and methylphenidate (Ritalin)—used by nearly seven percent of university students across the United States—have serious adverse effects with a high risk for addiction and overdose. That’s not to mention that these drugs often do not increase one’s productivity, intelligence, or cognitive abilities unless taken within an incredibly specific therapeutic window where an effective dose and an overdose can be only micrograms apart.

Gervain, however, believes Valproate can be better targeted to specific cognitive functions with fewer negative side effects. Her further studies will concentrate on the specific molecular and cellular changes (not just behavioral) caused by using Valproate.

Arguelles now lives in Singapore with his wife and sons. As one of the world’s best-know linguists, Arguelles spends an average of nine hours each day learning new languages and maintaining old ones. Before getting married and having children he says he used to study for 16 hours a day, doing transcriptions, reading classic novels in their original languages, re-hashing grammar and spelling. It is hard work learning how to speak fluent Afrikaans with a flawless accent or reading the poetry of Rumi in its original Persian.

But Valproate and the future of so-called “limitless” drugs might make that a relatively easy task. Maybe one day we will all speak 36 languages. Maybe one day, we will all be great singers and music critics. Or maybe one day we will spend our time counting cards at casinos and trying to exploit the stock market. Maybe one day we will use improved neuroplasticity to better memorize celebrity gossip and trivial facts. Maybe one day we’ll use “limitless” pills to create an even more segregated society than we live in now. Drugs will be able to do a lot, but how we use them will be up to us—for better or for worse.

Cody C. Delistraty
Cody C. Delistraty is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News. Follow him on Twitter @delistraty.

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