The researchers, based at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, made the remarkable discovery during experiments on mice.
By restricting a key messenger in their brain, it helped to prolong their capacity to learn through sound much later in life.
The study’s co-author, Dr Stanislav Zakharenko – a member of the St Jude Department of Developmental Neurobiology – said this preserved the ability of the mice to learn from sound much as young children learn from the soundscape of their world.
“By disrupting adenosine signalling in the auditory thalamus, we have extended the window for auditory learning for the longest period yet reported, well into adulthood and far beyond the usual critical period in mice,” he told Science Daily.
“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.”
Much as young children pick up language simply by hearing it spoken, the researchers showed that when brain adenosine levels were reduced, adult mice that were played a tone responded to the same sound stronger when it was played weeks or months later.
These adult mice also gained an ability to distinguish between very close tones - mice usually lack this 'perfect pitch' ability.
Researchers also showed that the experimental mice retained the improved tone discrimination for weeks.
“Taken together, the results demonstrated that the window for effective auditory learning re-opened in the mice and that they retained the information,” Dr Zakharenko said.
Among the strategies researchers used to inhibit adenosine activity was the experimental compound FR194921, which selectively blocks the A1 receptor.
If paired with sound exposure, the compound rejuvenated auditory learning in adult mice.
“That suggests it might be possible to extend the window in humans by targeting the A1 receptor for drug development,” Dr Zakharenko said.
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