Electric brain stimulation improves maths performance
5 November 2010
The research, published this week in 'Current Biology', builds on earlier work by Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University and his team, which showed that a temporary impairment in the processing of mathematical problems (dyscalculia) can be induced using brain stimulation.
In the new study, 15 student volunteers, aged between 20 and 21, were taught symbols that represented different numerical values, and then were timed to see how quickly and accurately they could complete a series of mathematical puzzles based on those symbols. Volunteers were given either a placebo or a low (1mA) electrical stimuli that ran from right to left, or vice versa, across the parietal lobe - an area of the brain that is crucial for processing mathematical problems.
Those who received stimulation from the right to the left parietal lobe reached a high level of performance in these tasks after a few sessions. When this group was re-tested six months later, they were found to have maintained a high level of performance.
Those volunteers who received stimulation from the left to the right parietal lobes significantly underperformed; however, previous studies have shown that this induced impairment effect is short-lived. Control tests showed that the effect was specific to the learned symbols and did not affect other cognitive functions.
"This is the first study from a large scale project funded by the Wellcome Trust that aims to provide ways to improve mathematical abilities in those with learning difficulties," said Dr Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology. "We are not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings and are now looking into the underlying brain changes."
"We've shown before that we can induce dyscalculia, and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at maths, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia, with a possible benefit to the general public. Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths."
Image: Eight representations of the dorsal surface of the brain. Credit: Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images
Cohen KR et al. Modulating neuronal activity produces specific and long lasting changes in numerical competence. Curr Biol 4 Nov 2010.