What If You Could Learn As Fast As A Child?

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moody-bluesIllustrated By Ly Ngo.
Say what you will about those overbearing tiger parents who put their kids in Mandarin class before they can even walk. Thing is, they might actually be on to something. It's widely known that our brains are most open to picking up new skills when we're young. If you've tried to learn how to play a new instrument or speak a new language as an adult, you can attest to the fact that adult brains are considerably less sponge-like than we would like them to be.

But, what if there were a way to get our brains to be as open and agile as children's brains? The Atlantic reports that researchers are looking for ways to do just that. The most promising: donepezil, a drug designed to treat Alzheimer's that has been shown to improve memory in dementia patients. For a new study, a team of scientists at Boston Children's Hospital has been prescribing the drug to older children with medical issues like amblyopia (also known as a "lazy eye").

Conditions like amblyopia are best treated when patients are around 7 or 8, when their brains can easily be rewired to correct abnormalities (in this case, in the way the brain processes sight). In prescribing drugs like donepezil to amblyopia patients, researchers have found that they can alter the brain's chemistry to mimic that of a young child, helping patients respond more readily to corrective treatments. Specifically, these drugs increase the brain's supply of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and serotonin, which help the brain learn new things.

It's not all good news, though. Other researchers point out that "hacking" the brain to return to a childlike state could be both a blessing and a curse: While a "young" brain is more open to new information, it's also more vulnerable to environmental stress. Others worry that this increased openness could lead to changes in personality as these impressionable brains are exposed to new influences. Still, the potential for this type of treatment — in applications ranging from stroke survivors to brain-trauma victims — make it not only fascinating but also rather promising. As for us, we're dreaming of a day when we can take a pill that will help us learn to cook like Nigella. (The Atlantic)