Most of us realize that younger children are better learners. They pick up languages easier and the amount of learning that they can retain on a day to day basis is incredible. Researchers are working on trying to determine if they can turn the clock back on learning so that adults can regain that tremendous learning capacity and learn like a child.
Researchers have long known about a “critical period”, an interval during which the neural circuits responsible for learning can be sculpted, and radically changed by experience. But this short period closes within a few months or years and learning becomes increasingly difficult. New studies have been aimed at trying to reopen that critical period so that adults can learn faster and better.
Researchers have found that at a certain period, the brain starts putting the brakes on the tremendous plasticity that occurs during the critical period and the window closes. Scientists have now begun finding ways to release those brakes by introducing drugs that increase the production of certain neurotransmitters.
The results have been limited so far, but promising. For example, Certain individuals with a visual condition called amblyopia, which is brain and not eye related and for which the treatment window generally closes in early childhood, have seen increased vision in adulthood when taking drugs that increase the production of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.
Researchers believe that continued studies may have benefits in the areas of autism, dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder. But this is a dangerous area. Certainly, if we can make strides in the treatment or slowing of disease, that is a positive advancement. My concern is that in a world that is often looking for quick fixes, we have to be careful that we don’t create dangerous options for those looking for a leg up in the academic or professional worlds.