Perfect Pitch Drug? Valproate May Help Nonmusicians Identify Musical Notes

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A side effect of a drug used to treat seizures and manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder could be music to the ears of some patients.

A new study published in Frontiers suggests that the FDA-approved drug valproate may help animals and humans achieve perfect pitch. The drug, which is a "histone-deacetylase," or HDAC inhibitor, was first given to mice, who exhibited perfect-pitch qualities after taking the drug. Recently, researchers gave the drug to adult men who were then able to identify pitches they couldn’t before.  

Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to identify a musical sound without a reference point. This ability is rare – with only 0.01 percent of the general population able to identify the 12 notes in the western musical system. While some are born with the talent, musical training is needed to use it. According to researchers, perfect pitch is usually acquired only by those who started musical training before 6 years old.

"At some point, they have to learn the proper terms—the labels—and then learn to associate those labels with sensory impressions of pitch," Daniel Levitin, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, told Psychology Today.

Previous studies have showed that extensive musical training could help adults achieve perfect pitch. Some have drawn a link within families, showing that genetics may play a role in who has absolute pitch. Others have seen a connection in languages. Conservatory students who are native speakers in tonal languages such as Mandarin and Vietnamese were more likely to display perfect pitch than English speakers.

The latest study, conducted by researchers from Canada, the United States, the U.K. and France, is the first to use a drug to achieve the same results.

“In the current study, we explored whether a reopening of the critical period was possible for AP learning in human adults,” researchers wrote. “We sought to establish whether the administration of valproate (VPA), a commonly used anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer, known to inhibit HDAC and modulate the epigenome to promote neuroplasticity would facilitate training naïve, non-musician adults on the identification of pitch classes in a classical AP task.”

The double-blind study followed 24 adult men, some of whom received two rounds of valproate over a period of 15 days. Using training videos to learn pitch classes, participants were then tested to see whether they could identify musical notes. After the first treatment, the average correct responses were 5.09 for those who received the drug and 3.50 for those in the placebo group.

While the drug may be years away from being used to help aspiring musicians achieve perfect pitch, researchers say the study “provides the ‘proof-of-concept’ for the possibility to restore neuroplasticity using a drug.” They add, “If further studies continue to reveal specificity of VPA to the AP task (or to tasks on which training or intervention is provided), critical information will have been garnered concerning when systemic drug treatments may safely be used to reopen neural plasticity in a specific, targeted way.”

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