Zap! You’re Better at Math! Brain Stimulation May Improve Skills

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A small study published online today in the journal Current Biology reports that non-invasive electrical stimulation of the right side of 15 healthy adults’ brains made them better at math tasks — and the effect was still there six months later.

Researchers have shown in previous studies that non-invasive stimulation — magnetic, rather than electrical — can make a subject’s performance in math worse. But this is the first time, the study’s authors say, that it has been shown that non-invasive stimulation “can also enhance numerical abilities with remarkable longevity.”

They speculate that eventually, brain stimulation could help the 20 percent of the population with “numerical disabilities,” and the 6.5% of the population so bad with numbers that they even get a diagnosis, “developmental dyscalculia.” I may joke about being somewhat “innumerate” myself sometimes, but it’s not funny at all to be unable to count your change or run a checkbook.

Before we get into the study’s details, let’s have the huge grain of salt that is clearly called for. Msn.com reports here:

One American researcher said the findings were encouraging, but a lot more study is needed.

“Like many good studies, it opens a raft of fertile questions, including ‘Will this work in children?’ and ‘Is it safe to use in children?'” said Dr. Edwin M. Robertson, associate director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“It is certainly possible that undergoing this procedure will affect brain function in children and so cause either neurological or psychiatric problems in the future, and so good follow-up studies are required to examine this issue,” said Robertson, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “The concern is greater for children whose brains are still developing, as opposed to the adult population of volunteers who took part in the current study.”

In other words, no, kids should not yet get some juice to the head before the SATs, and accountants need not order their zap-helmets yet.
Back to the study: According to the study’s press release —

“I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings,” said Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford. “We’ve shown before that we can temporarily induce dyscalculia [with another method of brain stimulation], and now it seems we might also be able to make someone better at maths. Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but if we’re successful, it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.”

The researchers used a method of brain stimulation known as transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). TDCS is a noninvasive technique in which a weak current is applied to the brain constantly over time to enhance or reduce the activity of neurons. The technique has gotten attention in the last decade for its potential to improve various functions in people with neurological deficits, for instance in those who have suffered a strokes.

In the new study, the researchers applied TDCS specifically to the parietal lobe, a portion of the brain that is crucial for numerical understanding. The study participants had normal mathematical abilities but were asked to learn a series of artificial numbers—symbols that they had never seen before that they were told represented numbers—while they received the noninvasive brain stimulation. The researchers then tested participants’ ability to automatically process the relationship of those artificial numbers to one another and to map them correctly in space using standard testing methods for numerical competence.

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