1st Place

 

Rachel Gleyzer

Bergen County Academies

Teacher: Carol Zepatos

 

 

When most people see a wavelength of light, they find no difficulty in associating it with a color. Yet hearing a frequency of sound and associating it with a musical note is a cognitive talent that fascinates scientists. This rare ability is referred to in the scientific literature as absolute pitch (AP) and it allows individuals to effortlessly, immediately and accurately label the pitches they hear with a musical note. AP has been a classic example of the “nature-nurture” dilemma since the extent to which genetic and environmental factors influence it is a matter of constant debate. Current research though, reveals AP as a paradigm of a complex genetic trait, studies of which provide vital insights into the interactions between heredity and nature.

Additionally, AP was shown to be prevalent amongst people who speak tonal languages such as Mandarin or Vietnamese. In such languages, the meaning of a word can vary based on its tone and since exposure to the language starts during infancy, this supports the critical period interpretation (Deutsch et al., 2009). Still, numerous inconsistencies and exceptions in all these theories indicate that AP cannot be fully understood without analyzing its genetic components.

It is important to examine AP through the lens of neuroplasticity, the idea that neural pathways within the brain can be altered by outside stimuli during set periods in development to focus them on certain skills. A drug called Valproate (VPA) was studied for its potential to reopen the critical period in adults, hereby restoring a degree of neuroplasticity to allow them to acquire AP. VPA inhibits the enzyme HDAC whose activity closes the critical period of auditory learning. In a controlled experiment, participants were given the drug and subsequently trained for targeted AP development. Results indeed demonstrated that subjects treated with VPA significantly improved their pitch perception (Gervain et al., 2013). The idea that inhibiting certain enzymes can allow individuals to partially learn AP as adults revolutionizes understanding of the characteristic. It creates a novel picture of the interaction of genetics and environmental influences on the phenotype of AP.