What if we could retain our youthful “sponge-like minds” into adulthood? We might become a new generation of super-brainiacs, that is, those who could afford the treatment. As it turns out, an epilepsy drug called Valproate, repurposed in low doses, might be the first “limitless drug”:
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.
Cyberpunk writers, open up your word processors. Readers, crack open some William Gibson. It really sounds like we’re inching closer to Neuromancer. As Gibson states, “I’m somewhere between Philip K. Dick’s distrust and Arthur C. Clarke’s enthusiasm.”
Not that I wouldn’t give these mind-enhancing drugs a shot!