A Stimulating Experience

If you’ve always lagged behind in math, there’s hope you may one day be able to give your math skills a boost by having your brain zapped with some painless electrical stimulation. This is according to a new study coming out of Britain. The study was published in the November 4, 2010 online issue of Current Biology.

Very Low-Level Current Stimulation

Oxford University neuroscientists have found that adults with typical math skills improved their performance on number quizzes after the administration of a noninvasive therapy called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS).  In TDCS, specific brain regions are stimulated with low-level currents of electricity so as to boost or lessen the activity of the neurons (the brain’s nerve cells).

During the past ten years, TDCS has demonstrated some promise in restoring brain function for those with Parkinson’s disease and in stroke victims. However, this is the first trial that focuses on the use of TDCS in healthy people to help improve their math scores.  Lead author of the study, Roi Cohen Kadosh said his team found they were able to enhance math skills with a very specific method and that the effects were long-lasting. Cohen Kadosh is a cognitive neuroscientist in Oxford’s department of experimental psychology.

Artificial Numbers

Cohen Kadosh and his team observed 15 students aged 20 and 21 years. The student participants were required to learn a series of made-up numbers in the form of unfamiliar symbols said to represent numbers. As the students learned the artificial numbers, they were administered a placebo (fake stimulation) or TDCS to the parietal lobe. This is a brain region located at the rear of the brain which is crucial to understanding numbers.

Cohen Kadosh says the end goal of this work is to provide some assistance to kids who are struggling with learning problems related to math. In order to get a clear idea of whether TDCS could help, it was necessary to invent new material for the adult participants in the form of the artificial numbers instead of testing them with already-familiar material.  The researchers tested the students to see if they could gain an automatic understanding of the relationship between the artificial numbers and then map them according to their proper spaces using standard methods for testing numerical ability.

Short Term Improvement

The study results showed that stimulating the brain led to an improved facility for learning new numbers. However, the observed improvement lasted just half a year. Tests meant to serve as controls found that the effects were specific to the symbols learned during the stimulation and did not extend to other cognitive processes.

Still-Developing Brain

While these results are encouraging, some researchers are reserving judgment. If the idea is to use TDCS in children, it must be determined that the technique is safe for youngsters. There is a concern among the experts that the procedure could cause psychiatric or neurophysiological side effects in the still-developing brain of a child.

Still, Cohen Kadosh is not deterred and plans to test the procedure on adults with math disabilities, on stroke victims and on those with degenerative diseases who have had their math abilities impaired as the result of illness. He hopes to help those who suffer from disability but admits that the technology could be misused and abused to boost the math scores of normal, healthy students.