New research has shown a drug used for treating epilepsy may allow adults to learn as easily as children do.

When a person is younger their brain is more plasticine, so it can be moulded by knowledge and experience into its future layout. As we age, the plasticity of our brains decreases, setting us in our ways and making it more difficult to change the layout of the brain.

Researchers in the US have hit upon a new way to wake up the plasticity of the brain, potentially unlocking new levels of adult learning ability.

The team of Harvard scientists led by Professor Takao Hensch have undertaken studies of the drug 'valproate', which is currently used in Australia as an anticonvulsant in epilepsy, anxiety, anorexia and other treatments.

In the study, patients were split into three groups and asked to perform listening and ear-training exercises over a series of weeks. One group were given regular doses of valproate, one group was administered a placebo and the third given nothing at all.

At the end of the tests the group that was given valproate showed a significantly better set of results than the placebo or baseline groups. Respondents were reportedly able to learn a much greater level of accuracy in identifying and placing the pitch of musical notes.

The evidence suggests valproate really does help to re-enliven the plasticity of the brain, making it more receptive to developing entirely new skills and abilities.

The implications for adult learning are profound, according to Dr Hensch.

“There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones,” he said in a recent interview.

“So the idea here was, could we come up with a way that would reopen plasticity, [and] paired with the appropriate training, allow adult brains to become young again.”

But like any tinkering with the inner-workings of the mind, Hensch says scientists should tread carefully.

“If we've shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised, acquiring language, culture, identity, then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.”

More information on the hearing experiment is available here.