‘Learning window’ for languages and music extended using single brain chemical

Study finds reducing the brain’s supply of the neuromodulator adenosine extends ability to differentiate between tones in mice.

9th August 2017
Children are better at learning instruments and languages than older people, but scientists may have unlocked a way to extend this capability to adults © Getty Images

Children are better at learning instruments and languages than older people, but scientists may have unlocked a way to extend this capability to adults © Getty Images

If you want your child to become fluent in foreign languages, or grow up to be a concert pianist, then the advice has always been to start them as early as possible. There’s a sound scientific reason for this: children have a much greater capability for auditory learning than adults. But now, in news that will delight pushy parents everywhere, researchers at St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee have managed to extend this ‘learning window’ into early adulthood, albeit only in mice so far.

In the study, published in the journal Science, researchers used several different techniques to either reduce the brain’s supply of the neuromodulator adenosine, or block the A1 receptor that is vital to its function. Adenosine inhibits the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is used by the auditory thalamus and the auditory cortex, the areas of the brain that process sound. With adenosine production and activity suppressed, the auditory thalamus and cortex had more glutamate to work with. As a result, the adult mice with lower levels of adenosine exhibited a greater ability to differentiate between tones than adult mice in the control group.

“These results offer a promising strategy to extend the same window in humans to acquire language or music ability… possibly by developing drugs that selectively block adenosine activity,” says research lead Dr Stanislav Zakharenko.

Be warned, though. Adenosine is also involved with sleep and suppressing arousal. So, if your virtuoso violinist grows up to be an insomniac sex maniac, don’t come crying to us…

 


This article first appeared in the Discoveries section of issue 311 of BBC Focus magazine – for the latest news, features and innovations delivered to your door subscribe here.