ICMPC Poster: Musical Intensity in Affect Regulaton: Interventons in Self-Harming Behavior

In partial fulfillment of my graduate thesis, this poster represents the findings of my study conducted at the University of California, San Diego. Presented July 5, 2016 at the 14th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco.

For full study, see chapter 2 of my thesis.

For PDF, see HERELD poster ICMPC.


Prior research associates listening to heavy music with reduced suicide risk, especially among teenage girls when utilized for vicarious release. Nevertheless, few studies consider the active use of heavy music in self-regulation for those who suffer from thoughts of self-harm and/or mental illness. In order to to better understand the mechanisms by which engaging with heavy and intense music may circumvent self-harming behavior, a pilot study is presented of 283 subjects. The majority of those surveyed report suffering from thoughts of self-harm or mental disorders. To examine the use of affect regulation via both generic (non-specified) and heavy, intense, and highly emotive music, we created the Music in Affect Regulation Questionnaire (MARQ), utilizing music in mood regulation (MMR) strategies from the work of Saarikallio. We identify heavy music by the presence of capacious, distorted riffs; loud, pervasive percussion; or an overall feeling of ‘raw power,’ emotion, and affective intensity stemming from the instrumental or vocal parts. Our findings collectively show that heavy music listeners (and those who have thoughts of self-harm, in particular) interact with definitively heavy, intense, or highly emotive music differently than with generic music, especially in the use of modulating negative mood. These findings seem less related to genre-specific categories than certain musical commonalities collectively understood as intensity, and provide significant evidence for heavy music’s ability to circumvent self-destructive impulses, especially when applied in tandem with specific listening strategies of affect-regulation. Additional evidence from prior case studies further suggests the value of deeper investigation of the conscientious use of heavy music as a potential intervention for those suffering from affect dysregulation and self-harm.


Musical Intensity in Affect Regulaton: Interventons in Self-Harming Behavior

UC MERCI Project Wins $300K Award for Music and Science Research


Scott Makeig, research scientist and director of the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at the Institute for Neural Computation of UC San Diego, has brought together a research group from four UC campuses who have won a $300,000 President’s Research Catalyst Award, one of five such awards across the UC system announced by President Janet Napolitano.

The group’s research, which uses music to understand the human brain, “brings together UC experts on music listening, performance, neuroscience, brain imaging, and data science to understand the transformative potential of music for health and cognition,” says Napolitano’s announcement.

Makeig and his colleagues are among the first to receive the new awards, which will channel $10 million over three years to fund research in areas of strategic importance, such as sustainability and climate, food and nutrition, equity and social justice, education innovation, and health care.

“It’s gratifying to know our work on the frontiers of music, systems neuroscience, and human experience has been recognized for its potential value,” said Makeig. “I’m especially pleased for my collaborators. This is a true team effort by scientists from different disciplines with common interests in musical experience and communication.”

His winning project proposes “an American center for the scientific study of musical experience, communication, and behavior.” The UC Music Experience Research Community Initiative (UC MERCI) will allow UC researchers to share cutting-edge resources and collaboratively develop methods to understand – and enhance – music’s ability to affect and even transform the human mind.

Working with Makeig on the project are John Iversen, Sarah Creel, and Gert Lanckriet of UC San Diego; Ramesh Balasubramaniam, UC Merced; Petr Janata, UC Davis; and Mark Tramo, UCLA. Under the initiative, a group of graduate students will work together across the four campuses. California music-industry groups may also be involved.

“The study of musical experience and communication is truly interdisciplinary,” said Makeig. “For centuries, humanists and scientists have studied music and language from different angles and for varied purposes at conservatories and universities around the globe. We now have an opportunity to gain new understanding by using new scientific tools including brain imaging and computation.”

“A thorough and systematic study of music cognition requires a truly multidisciplinary effort, bringing together neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, medicine and, of course, music. While the UC system has much invested in individuals, technologies, and methodologies for studying each of these separately, a systematic interdisciplinary effort to tackle music-cognition problems could enable UC to attain worldwide prominence in these research areas.”


Above information taken directly from full press release by Paul K. Mueller, which may be found here.

More information on MERCI may be found here.

CALL FOR PAPERS: Biennial Meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition



The biennial meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition will be held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, on August 1-5, 2015.

Submissions are welcome from a broad range of disciplines, including (but not limited) to Psychology, Neuroscience, Medicine, Education, Engineering, and Musicology. Abstracts for presentations should be no longer than 300 words and should describe the motivation, methodology, results, and implications to the degree that this information is available at the time of submission.  Empirical contributions should refer to the stimuli/corpus, methodology, and data collected.  Theoretical contributions are also welcome, provided that the connection to music perception and cognition is underscored through discussion of aims, methods, and/or results. Abstracts for proposed symposia are welcome and should include individual abstracts as well as a brief description of the theme.

Abstracts can now be submitted as follows:

  1. Prepare your abstract using this template smpc2015abstracttemplate. Formatting requirements are here:http://smpc2015.weebly.com/submitting-an-abstract.html
  1. Register as a new User and Create a CMT account for SMPC conference here:https://cmt.research.microsoft.com/SMPC2015
  1. Go to the drop-down menu “Select Your Role” and choose “Author”. Then click on “Create a new Paper submission” in the Author Console.
  1. Enter in the required information and upload formatted abstract.

Deadline for submissions is 11 pm CDT on February 2, 2015.

Can musical training influence brain connectivity? Evidence from diffusion tensor MRI

Brain Sci 2014 Jun 10;4(2):405-27

Can musical training influence brain connectivity? Evidence from diffusion tensor MRI

(Moore E, Shaefer RS, Bastin ME, Roberts N, Overy K)*


“In recent years, musicians have been increasingly recruited to investigate grey and white matter neuroplasticity induced by skill acquisition. The development of Diffusion Tensor Magnetic Resonance Imaging (DT-MRI) has allowed more detailed investigation of white matter connections within the brain, addressing questions about the effect of musical training on connectivity between specific brain regions. Here, current DT-MRI analysis techniques are discussed and the available evidence from DT-MRI studies into differences in white matter architecture between musicians and non-musicians is reviewed. Collectively, the existing literature tends to support the hypothesis that musical training can induce changes in cross-hemispheric connections, with significant differences frequently reported in various regions of the corpus callosum of musicians compared with non-musicians. However, differences found in intra-hemispheric fibres have not always been replicated, while findings regarding the internal capsule and corticospinal tracts appear to be contradictory. There is also recent evidence to suggest that variances in white matter structure in non-musicians may correlate with their ability to learn musical skills, offering an alternative explanation for the structural differences observed between musicians and non-musicians. Considering the inconsistencies in the current literature, possible reasons for conflicting results are offered, along with suggestions for future research in this area.”

And for our Italian friends:

In tempi recenti i musicisti sono stati sempre più spesso reclutati per indagare la neuroplasticità della sostanza grigia e bianca indotta dall’acquisizione di nuove abilità. Lo sviluppo della risonanza magnetica a tensore di diffusione (DT-MRI) ha permesso un’indagine più dettagliata delle connessioni della materia bianca all’interno del cervello, permettendo di rispondere a quesiti che interessano lo sviluppo della neuroplasticità indotta dal training musicale. In questo studio, si discutono le potenzialità di questo metodo e si evidenziano le differenze di connettività riscontrate nel cervello di musicisti e non musicisti. Globalmente, la letteratura attuale tende a supportare un aumento della connettività interemisferica indotta dalla pratica musicale, con differenze significative trovate nelle varie regioni del corpo calloso dei musicisti rispetto ai non musicisti. In ogni caso, le differenze nelle fibre intra-emisferiche non sono sempre replicate, mentre le osservazioni riferite alla capsula interna e al tratto corticospinale sembrano essere contraddittorie. Esiste anche una recente evidenza che suggerisce che la variabilità nella struttura della sostanza bianca nei non musicisti possa correlare con la loro capacità di acquisire nuove abilità musicali, offrendo una spiegazione alternativa per le differenze strutturali osservate tra i musicisti e i non musicisti. Considerando le incongruenze nella letteratura, gli Autori propongono una possibile spiegazione per i risultati contraddittori, suggerendo una strategia per la ricerca futura in quest’area delle neuroscienze.

*(1 Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), Reid School of Music, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9DF, UK; 2 SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA; 3 Centre for Clinical Brain Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, UK; 4 Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRIC), University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, UK; 5 Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD),Reid School of Music, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9DF, UK)

“Neuromusic News” edited by Fondazione Mariani.
Contributors: Luisa Lopez, Giuliano Avanzini, Maria Majno and Barbara Bernardini.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).

Phenomenological Experience in Music: Between a Referential and Absolute Approach

photo (6)

Last weekend, experts across the board in the field of music and science convened to present Convergence: A Multidisciplinary Dialogue on Music. Presented by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center and the Department of Music at University of California San Diego, the symposium brought together the fields of music, psychology, computational and affective neuroscience, ethnomusicology, composition and education.

Organized by a series of four talks entitled Systems, Communication, Transmission and Translation, and Convergence, the symposium played host to a multitude of research and education in a musically unifying setting. The panels of the day covered topics including the temporal dynamics of neural processing (Mark Tramo, UCLA), phenomenological experience in music (David Borgo, UCSD), music and language in early development (Gwendolyn McGraw, artist/educator), and the speech-to-song illusion (Diana Deutsch, UCSD).

One dialogue I found to be of particular interest was the closing discourse of the first panel. Originating in conversation with the differing approaches to creating music, the dialogue surrounded American musicologist Leonard B. Meyer’s two theories of music and emotion. Referential composition tends to use association and experience as main creative tools, whereas absolute composition relies on solely intramusical structures and relationships. As these two theories (which might also be translated into nature vs. nurture) are not mutually exclusive, they were broadly debated. While songwriter Mark Tramo provided a case for the referential composition process, expressing an opinion that popular music is mainly associative/emotion-driven and serious music absolute, composer Lei Liang offered a more integrative, alternative estimation.

In describing his experience upon coming to UCSD, Liang spoke in regard to a newer, particular generation of composers:

“It’s a very interesting tension. The music can make you not only have fun, but also… you can cry with it, because you can tell that they’re not just creating an absolute piece that engages their brain, but in fact I was amazed by how much trauma, how much pain and joy they’re open to bringing into the public arena. As a way of responding, I feel like the composers and what they are willing to engage with in their material has been changing a great deal, and there is this kind of merge from the performer’s point of view as well. There is a lot of interaction taking place.”

While the referential style relies more heavily on calling upon experience from the past (frequently resulting in the release of oxytocin or dopamine in the composer’s brain), the absolutist method has strictly to do with music and expectancies generated by tonal relationships, and thus focuses more prominently on theory, structure and analysis.

Building on his prior explanation of the role music plays in phenomenological experience, Professor David Borgo offered concise thoughts in regard to the referential/absolute dichotomy:

“For me, it does often come back to the relationship between what I do as a performer, creator, and improviser, and the kinds of questions I’m interested in. When one is thrust into that moment of musicking, in some ways, there is no dividing line between the things that you bring to bear on the moment, be it a lifetime of experience, or dealing with/expecting certain things. Ultimately to open oneself to the moment means to be aware of all of the referents, all of the context that’s happening at that moment, the rich complexity of the room, and the people you’re playing with and for. For me, it can all come down to the fact that these sets of resources that might seem distinct are also thrust together in the musicking moment.”

The symposium also included noteworthy talks by ethnomusicologist Alex Khalil on The Gamelan Project, Dane Harwood on music as a communication system, Gwendolyn McGraw on music and language in early development, composer Katarina Rosenberger on the complex relationship we have with our voice, and principle of the Museum School Carl Hermanns on the importance of music in education. Building on this year’s momentum, the conference is set to reoccur next year to again provide a platform to confront and address divergent attitudes and philosophies in the understanding of music and science.

UCSD, Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center Launch Convergence 2014: A Multidisciplinary Dialogue on Music

The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center and the Department of Music at UC San Diego, in collaboration with Mozart and the Mind present:

Convergence: A Multidisciplinary Dialogue on Music

A unique symposium that brings together multiple streams of music research and knowledge, Convergence is not only a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue but also an opportunity for collaboration. Neuroscientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, composers, performers, and music therapists will participate in a series of panel discussions moderated by music researchers from the Temporal Damics of Learning Center. This multidisciplinary dialogue will extend into an evening poster session.

Sunday, May 18, 2014, 8am to 7pm
Conrad Prebys Music Center, Room127, UC San Diego
Map and directions to Conrad Prebys Music Center (CPMC)

For further information, registration, or webcast registration, please visit:

Registration: $45 general, $15 student

Featured Panelists

David Borgo, Diana Deutsch, Dane Harwood, Carl Hermanns, Mari Jones, Layne Kalbfleisch, Lei Liang, Andy McGraw, Gabriella Mussachia, Roger Reynolds, Katharina Rosenberger, Michael Thaut, Concetta Tomaino

Information provided by the UCSD Press Room






Musical Hallucinations Not Necessarily of a Psychiatric Nature

Rev Neurol 2014 Mar 1;58(5):207-12
Musical hallucinations: perpetual music                                                                                                                                                                     Hospital Donostia, 20014 San Sebastian, Spain

Musical hallucinations are a kind of auditory hallucinaion that are prevalent among the non-psychiatric population, but which have rarely been reported in the neurological literature. They occur most frequently in the elderly, in females and when there is a loss of hearing, but their pathophysiology has still to be unravelled.. We report here six cases (five females and one male) of musical hallucinations diagnosed in a general neurology clinic over a time-span of five years. In five cases there was also concurrent hypoacusis, to a greater or lesser extent, and one had been triggered by pentoxifylline. In most instances, the musical content of the hallucinations had its origins in music experienced in childhood and early youth. In the cases submitted to pharmacological treatment, the response was poor. Yet, after explaining to the patients that the condition was benign and had no connection with a psychotic pathology, the degree of acceptance of the symptoms was good. Musical hallucinations are a little-known pathology lying on the borderline between neurology, otorhinolaryngology and psychiatry which are often wrongly linked to mental disease. It is essential to explain to patients and relatives that these symptoms are not necessarily of a psychiatric nature, and to be aware of the potential capacity of some commonly used drugs to generate them.

Per gli Italiani:

Le allucinazioni musicali sono un tipo di allucinazione uditiva prevalente nella popolazione non psichiatrica, ma che raramente vengono riportate nella letteratura neurologica. Si manifestano in prevalenza nelle persone anziane, soprattutto donne, quando vi sia una perdita dell’udito, ma la loro fisiopatologia resta ancora oggi poco chiara. In questo studio gli Autori riportano 6 casi (5 donne e un uomo) di soggetti affetti da allucinazioni musicali diagnosticate in una clinica di neurologia generale in un periodo di cinque anni. In 5 casi i pazienti presentavano anche ipoacusia di grado variabile, in un caso scatenata dalla pentoxifillina. Nella maggior parte dei casi il contenuto musicale delle allucinazioni consisteva nell’udire musica relativa al periodo dell’infanzia o dell’adolescenza. Nei casi trattati farmacologicamente, la risposta è stata scarsa. Dopo che è stato spiegato ai pazienti che il sintomo era benigno e non aveva alcuna connessione con una patologia psicotica, il grado di accettazione dei sintomi è stato buono. In conclusione, le allucinazioni musicali sono una patologia poco conosciuta che si inserisce in un contesto borderline tra la neurologia, l’otorinolaringoiatria e la psichiatria, e viene spesso erroneamente associata ai disordini mentali. È essenziale spiegare ai pazienti e ai loro parenti che questi sintomi non sono necessariamente di natura psichiatrica, e tenere in considerazione il fatto che possono essere sollecitati da molti farmaci di uso comune.

Abstract provided by US National Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health.

Music, Mind and Meaning Conference at the Peabody Institute – Day 2 Recap

1779146_10100787537465660_2115934_nMusic, Mind and Meaning Conference – Day 2

Friday commenced with the morning keynote delivered by Dr. Ani Patel, entitled Does instrumental musical training enhance the brain’s processing of speech? In Patel’s articulate and informative lecture, he began by drawing our attention to the following: “Music and language have important connections as cognitive and neural systems, and that has implications for theoretical debates about how the mind is organized – for evolutionary studies on the origins of these abilities, and practical issues about remediation of language disorders” (Patel, 2014). Though the parallels in music and language are less novel on account of the publication of his 2008 book Music, Language and the Brain, the implications of instrumental training lending to developments in language and speech are very much so. In conclusion, operating with his extended OPERA hypothesis, Patel emphasizes that regardless of the varying direction and debates these studies may undergo, “Comparative music and language research really does deepen our understanding of human communication.” (Patel, 2014).

Dr. Elizabeth Tolbert spoke next, providing an evolutionary perspective in Music, Meaning and Becoming Human. Approaching the co-evolution of music, meaning and social intelligence, Tolbert addressed music as a behavior, not object; of possessing a social ontology, and its implicational model as derived from social interaction, shared intentionality and social intelligence. Her overarching thesis states “the story of becoming human is the story of the development of a specifically human type of meaning rooted in social intelligence, and one that likely has its origins in proto-musical behavior.” (Tolbert, 2014).

IMG_9286Dr. Ian Cross’s lecture entitled Music, Participation and Interaction further expanded on the day’s existing idea of music not only as a “practice composed by the few and consumed by many,” but as the encompassment of interactive processes far beyond a role of abstract structures, symbolic realms or lofty themes. As uniquely flexible and socially cooperative creatures, humans are capable of utilizing music as not only a mode of communicating information and ideals, but at times as phatic organisms. Cross went on to explain with conviction that if this theory were more widely considered, the insinuation might result in music being given the proper chance to utilize it’s more pragmatic magic in resolving social uncertainties (and thus social anxiety), provide powerful effects on memory and social attitude, and “provide us with new perspectives on the investigation of music beyond the bounds of Western culture” (Cross, 2014).

The second keynote, Losing the Beat: A New Window on Human Rhythm was given Dr. Isabelle Peretz (University of Montreal). Peretz has published over two hundred and fifty five scientific papers regarding everything from perception, emotion and memory to singing and dancing. In Losing the Beat, Peretz explained that a defining characteristic of human interaction with music is “the identity and ability to move to the beat.” Although this universal faculty is typically formed early in life, her recent research shows that some individuals suffer from the inability to synchronize with beats in music. This disorder is referred to as beat deafness, a new form of congenital amusia. In her presentation, Peretz conveyed a strong sensibility for the cause of studying musical disorders in regard to “reverse-engineering of the musical brain” (Peretz, 2014).

IMG_9311Later in the afternoon, Andrea Halpern took the floor to share her work on auditory imagery, and to describe her study examining the neural loci of imagined music. Halpern is a pioneer in her long-standing devotion to the field from early in its development. She has contributed fundamental work on memory and perception of musical structure, including studies on earworms and the persistence of musical memories), effects of timbre and tempo change, and perception of emotion in sounded and imagined music. In her presentation Auditory Imagery: Linking Internal and External Music, Halpern presented the argument that although internal and external music experiences are distinctive encounters, they share a number of important similarities, which both musicians and nonmusicians can exploit to enhance the musical experience.

Photo 1 – Diana Hereld

Photos 2, 3 – Scott Metcalfe

Note: I must include an apology for the delay in reporting on the conference this weekend. I simply found myself so wonderfully overwhelmed with information (but overwhelmed regardless) that I was unsure how to encapsulate the day’s culmination of so many brilliant minds in presentation of their most recent work. As a result, I’ve decided to report individually on each of them in the near future. A few other outlets have picked up specific coverage, and I will advise as those are released. I will also be sharing a summation of the conference’s concluding rountable featuring the speakers and performers, which was truly a thing to behold.

Music, Mind, Meaning Conference 2014 at the Peabody Institute of Music

peabody library (January 30-31, Baltimore, MD) The Music, Mind and Meaning Conference will bring together scientists from the field of music cognition  and renowned musicians for a two-day event to explore the relationships between music and science at the Peabody Institute of Music. The events will include presentations from leading scientists and a special musical performance by the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, Chair of Jazz Studies at Peabody. Keynote speakers will be Drs. David Huron, Aniruddh Patel, and Isabelle Peretz, three remarkable scientists who have led groundbreaking studies of how and why people have engaged in musical behaviors throughout human history. Conference participants will include scientists, clinicians, musicians, students and interested members of the public. Presentations will explore the idea of musical meaning by examining issues of expectation, creativity, evolution, culture, language, emotion and memory from the viewpoint of cognitive psychology, musicology and auditory neuroscience. The conference is generously supported by a conference grant from the Brain Sciences Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For more information visit http://www.mmmbaltimore2014.org/.

I will be attending and covering this conference, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter @pathwaysinmusic and look for coverage here directly following. A special thanks to Mr. Cooper McClain for making this trip possible.

Valproic Acid for Perfect Pitch? Steady, Now…

FDA_seizure_drug_DepakoteFor the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with the announcement of the “perfect pitch miracle drug.” Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Valproic acid has been used alone or in addition to other medications for nearly fifty years to treat epilepsy, and is the active ingredient in drugs such as Valproate and Depakon. It is also used in the prevention of migraines, mania in bipolar disorder and for the treatment of aggression exhibited in children with ADHD. It is in the class of anticonvulsants. To talk a little bit about how it works, our brain is made up of thousands of nerve cells that communicate back and forth via electrical signal, a very intricate and delicate process that need maintain a steady and stable balance for normative functioning. When repetitive and abnormally rapid electrical signals are released, this process becomes disturbed and over stimulated. Anticonvulsants such as Valproate function as a stabilizer by increasing the amount of the natural nerve-calming chemical GABA, (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), as an HDAC (histone deacetlyase) inhibitor (Monti et al., 2009). GABA is one of the brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitters, which many researchers believe to regulate anxiety. When the amount of GABA in the brain falls too low, Valproate prevents the breakdown of the chemical and works to stabilize the amount of electrical activity, which explains why the drug has been found effective as a treatment for periods of mania and epileptic seizures.

Unfortunately, valproic acid is far from the ideal end-all. Valproate has been known to potentially cause serious or life threatening damage to the liver, pancreas, and blood cells, and holds an alarmingly high statistic for weight gain. It is not approved for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and has recently been the target of a lawsuit due to unforeseen birth defects. It is also known to cause ataxia, thrombocytopenia and leucopenia, so before we all go rushing off to “increase our brain function,” it might be wise to spend a moment thinking critically.

This morning, Tom Ashbrook of On Point, NPR stated “Imagine a pill that could rewire your brain. Would make your brain young again. Able to learn and absorb like a five-year old. Music. Languages. Would you take it?”  Neuroplasticity has risen to near-celebrity status over the past few months, and recent study by Frontiers of Systems Neuroscience is certainly fanning the flame. Carried out by researchers from France, Canada, Maryland, Australia, Massachusetts and England, the study set out to discover whether such periods when enzymes “impose ‘brakes’ on neuroplasticity, might be able to “reopen critical periods of neuroplasticity” via a drug that blocks productions of those enzymes. Absolute pitch was thought to be a solid assessment of this possibility because there are “no known cases of an adult acquiring absolute pitch.”

Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a musical sound without any reference point. Individuals who possess AP, constituting about 0.01% of the general population, are able to identify the pitch class, i.e., one of the 12 notes of the Western musical system, e.g., C, D, G#, of a sound with great accuracy (varying between 70–99%, depending on the task, as compared to 10–40% for non-AP individuals, Takeuchi and Hulse, 1993). The study explains:

“Importantly, acquiring AP has a critical period (Levitin and Zatorre, 2003; Russo et al., 2003). A critical period is a fixed window of time, usually early in an organism’s lifespan, during which experience has lasting effects on the development of brain function and behavior. The principles of critical period phenomena and neural plasticity are increasingly well understood both at the behavioral/experiential (Kleim and Jones, 2008) and at the molecular/cellular level (Hensch, 2005). Specifically, behaviorally induced plasticity in the healthy brain, typically after the end of the relevant critical period, can lead to improvement beyond normal or average performance levels. However, for many tasks, this requires targeted training—simple routine use is often insufficient. The factors known to influence the efficiency of such targeted training include the number of repetitions involved, the intensity of the training as well as the relevance or saliency of the stimuli or task trained. Importantly, such training-induced learning is quite specific to the trained task and to the underlying brain networks, although some transfer to other, related domains of knowledge or skills is sometimes possible. At the cellular level, critical periods close when maturational processes and experiential events converge to cause neuoro-physiological and molecular changes that dampen or eliminate the potential for further change (Hensch, 2005Bavelier et al., 2010), thus imposing “brakes” on neuroplasticity. One of the epigenetic changes leading to decreased plasticity after the critical period involves the action of HDAC, an enzyme that acts as an epigenetic “brake” on critical-period learning (Morishita and Hensch, 2008Qing et al., 2008). Research has shown that inhibition of HDAC can reopen critical-period neuroplasticity in adult mice to enable recovery from amblyopia (Putignano et al., 2007Silingardi et al., 2010), and to facilitate new forms of auditory learning (Yang et al., 2012).” (http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnsys.2013.00102/full ).

The randomized, double blind study was conducted on twenty four men, half of which received Valproate and the other half, a placebo. The men who received Valproate showed advantage in pitch class identification. To come to the conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge the fact that these powerful pharmaceuticals were in no way developed for something so “trivial” of the acquisition of perfect pitch – the diagnostic simply was appropriate for a brief and extremely small study and subject pool. The researchers conclude:

If confirmed by future replications, our study will provide a behavioral paradigm for the assessment of the potential of psychiatric drugs to induce plasticity. In particular, the AP task may be useful as a behavioral correlate. 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.”

It is vital during this time of exponential and rapid advances in the realm of neuroscience that we keep the grounding measures of ethics and morality at the forefront of our minds. There is a reason performance enhancing drugs are strictly forbidden in competitive sports. While it is truly of great interest to deliberate over the implications of a drug altered to target neuroplasticity, with great power (all together now) comes great responsibility. 

Photo credit: http://sheller.com/practice-areas/practice-areas.php?title=Depakote-divalproex_sodium