May 17, 2013
Electrical Brain Stimulation May Help Boost Math Skills
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Oxford University researchers in a new study found that a weak electrical signal can help boost a person's mathematic skills over a period few months.
The team wrote in the journal Cell Biology that their technique involves placing electrodes on the scalp of the head and applying random electrical noise to stimulate the part of the brain known to be involved in doing math. The technique, known as transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), is painless, non-invasive and relatively cheap; it also falls into a group of techniques called transcranial electrical stimulation (TES).
The researchers asked 51 students to perform two arithmetic tasks over a five-day period that tested their ability to perform calculations in their head and learn arithmetic facts by heart. They had 25 of the participants take part in the main experiment and 26 in the control.
"We found that with just 5 days of TRNS-accompanied cognitive training, we were able to bring about long-lasting improvements in cognitive and brain functions," said Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.
Cohen and colleagues saw performance on both calculation and learning tasks improved over five days. The improvements in performing mental calculations lasted for six months after the training.
"Our neuroimaging results suggested that TRNS increases the efficiency with which stimulated brain areas use their supplies of oxygen and nutrients," Kadosh added in a statement.
He said the idea of using this technique in the clinic and classrooms is realistic, but they would have to cross several socio-ethical, financial and scientific barriers before it can be achieved. He said current results open up a line of study to see if the findings are repeated in larger and more diverse groups of people.
"If experimental results continue in this positive direction, we hope that these painless, safe and cheap non-invasive stimulation techniques will one-day be used in the clinic, classrooms and even home to help those who struggle with certain cognitive tasks. This could include anyone from a child falling behind in his/her maths class to an elderly patient suffering from neurodegenerative disease," he said.
The scientists are not sure exactly how TRNS influences the firing of individual neurons in the brain. It is thought it may increase the synchronization in firing of neurons in the areas of the brain receiving the stimulation.
"It is very important that future work in this field makes an effort to identify any downsides of TES, and ensure that the boosting of one cognitive ability does not come at the expense of another," concluded Dr Cohen Kadosh.
University of Michigan scientists reported back in January that using TES techniques may help patients who suffer from severe pain. They found that delivering electricity through sensors on the skulls of chronic migraine patients offered some relief in the intensity and pain of their headaches.