Children are able to learn new sounds with ease, which partly explains how they learn new languages and musical instruments so quickly. In a recent study, researchers uncovered the brain chemicals that control this auditory learning, and they hope that further research will allow them to manipulate these chemicals.

In a study now published online in the journal Science, a team from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital identified the chemical messengers in the brains of mice that control their auditory, or sound, learning. They believe that further research will allow them to control this process and allow older mice to learn new sounds with the ease of young mice. What’s more, the team believes this research could lead to similar results in human subjects, IFL Science reported. They also hope it may someday benefit those with auditory conditions such as tinnitus or difficulties resulting from a stroke. 

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"These results offer a promising strategy to extend the same window in humans to acquire language or musical ability by restoring plasticity in critical regions of the brain, possibly by developing drugs that selectively block adenosine activity,”  explained study author Stanislav Zakharenko, in a statement.

According to the research, two chemical messengers are involved with controlling the auditory memory of mice: A1 and adenosine. Reducing or blocking these chemicals caused the adult mice to have better auditory learning skills. For example, mice who had adenosine manipulated in their brains were better able to distinguish between tones with slightly different frequencies, IFL Science reported.

It’s too early for this finding to yet be translated to humans, but the researchers have high hopes. For example, they believe that reducing adenosine levels in humans could have similar results and the next step is to figure out a way to do just this. Although it’s not clear what effect reducing adenosine levels will have, the researchers suspect that it may lengthen the critical learning period during childhood, and allow adults to learn new instruments and languages with the same ease as young children.

For example, according to The Telegraph, it’s not that children are inherently better at learning a foreign language, but rather that they are better at picking up and mimicking new sounds. This allows them to not only be more open to new sounds, but allows them to adopt correct pronunciation. This is why they can speak a new language with a perfect accent. In adults, the combination of strong first language accents and being less able to hear slight sound differences means that their second languages are often riddled with mispronunciations.

In addition, it could help adults better re-learn sounds after having health conditions such as tinnitus or a stroke.

Source: Blundon JA, Roy NC, Teubner BJW, Yu J, Eom TY, et al. Restoring auditory cortex plasticity in adult mice by restricting thalamic adenosine signaling. Science . 2017

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