It may sound like something from 2011 thriller Limitless, but researchers have discovered a pill that helps adults learn new skills as quickly as children. A professor at Harvard rewired the brain of a visually impaired women to process images by giving her Alzheimer’s drug donepezil.
The pill boosts chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and acetylcholine, which are both found in high concentrations in the brains of young children. These chemicals naturally reduce with age. Children under seven develop new skills rapidly because their brains go through what’s called ‘critical periods’ of development.
Due to high levels of certain chemicals and the fast growth of the brain, young children learn new languages, absorb information and pick up musical skills, for example, much faster than adults. In adults, these skills become harder as the brain reaches peak development and loses this ‘elasticity’.
In Limitless, Bradley Cooper takes a pill that opens up closed regions of his brain to boost his intelligence, motor skills and more. The drug donepezil is a cholinesterase inhibitor. This means it increases the amount of acetylcholine around nerve endings and helps boost brain function.
Children develop new skills rapidly as their brains go through ‘critical periods’ of development. This means they learn new languages, absorb information and pick up musical skills much faster than adults. In adults, these skills become harder as the brain reaches peak development and loses this ‘elasticity’.
Professor Takao Hensch gave donepezil to a 14-year-old girl called Shannon, a patient at the Boston Children’s Hospital. Shannon has a condition called amblyopia that impairs her vision, also known as a ‘lazy eye.’ Following tests with donepezil, Shannon was able to process images with her affected eye, in the same way a newborn would.
In December, Professor Hensch similarly used an epilepsy drug called valproate to teach tone-deaf adults how to pick out different musical notes. Participants who took the valproate were able to correctly identify an average of 5.09 notes, while people in a control group could only identify 3.5.
‘The brain is not losing its plasticity forever as we grow older,’ Professor Hensch told The Atlantic.
‘Instead, it throws on the brakes at certain times. It’s the brain’s job to be elastic, and it wants to rewire.
‘But through evolution, it’s created a lot of molecules to make sure it doesn’t rewire too much.’
He continued: ‘Much of our adult behaviour reflects the neural circuits sculpted by experience in infancy and early childhood.
‘At no other time in life does the surrounding environment so potently shape brain function – from basic motor skills, sensation or sleep to higher cognitive processes like language.
‘How this plasticity waxes and wanes with age carries an impact far beyond neuroscience, including education policy, therapeutic approaches to developmental disorders or strategies for recovery from brain injury in adulthood.’
- Donepezil is used to improve memory function in Alzheimer’s patients
- Children learn skills quickly as their brains go through ‘critical periods’
- Researchers found donepezil can revert adult brains to these periods
- It increases the ‘elasticity’ of the brain making it capable of learning rapidly
- Researchers rewired a visually impaired patient’s brain to process images
- The drug works by boosting chemicals in the brain that reduce with age
EPILEPSY DRUGS CAN MAKE US MORE MUSICAL
In December, Professor Hensch used an epilepsy drug called valproate to teach tone-deaf adults how to pick out different musical notes.
The men who took part in the experiment had no musical training as children and were asked to perform online tasks to train their ears.
After two weeks of the exercises, they were tested on their ability to differentiate tones to see if the training had more effect than it typically does for men of their age.