Electric brain stimulation can improve math skills-Study

2010-11-10
THE PUNCH Newspaper

Sending an electric current through the brain can boost ones ability to do sums for up to six months, scientists have discovered. British scientists have found that passing a low current through a specific brain region could double ones ability to do mathematics. Applying electrical stimulation to the scalp and the underlying motor regions of the brain could make ones more skilled at delicate tasks according to the Oxford researchers. The procedure is known as transcranial direct current stimulation.

Researchers at Britain‘s Oxford University studied 15 volunteers and demonstrated for the first time that electrical stimulation of the brain improved their performance in a series of mathematics assessments, and continued to do so half a year later.

Scientists said last month they found that using electrodes to stimulate areas deep within the brain might be able to help patients with severe obsessive compulsive disorders who do not respond to other treatments.

For this study, 15 student volunteers aged 20 and 21 were taught symbols that represented different numerical values, and then timed to see how quickly and accurately they could complete a series of math puzzles based on those symbols.

The teaching took place over six days and each day, the volunteers were given either a placebo or a one milliamp electrical stimulus from right to left, or vice versa, across the parietal lobe – a brain area important for processing mathematics. The stimulus was administered for about 20 minutes each day, Dr. Cohen Kadosh, from the Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology said.

“You can feel it a little bit, but only for the first 15 to 30 seconds or so,” he said. “And it’s not at all painful. It‘s just like a tingling sensation in your skull.” He said none of the volunteers reported any side effects from the stimulation.

The results published in the journal, Current Biology, showed volunteers who were given the electrical stimulation from right to left parietal lobes performed best.

This group was re-tested six months after the training and the scientists found that the parietal lobe is a brain region that plays a crucial role in mathematical processing.

In one of the stimulated groups, the current flow was from the right to the left parietal lobe, while in the other, the direction was reversed.

Volunteers who received the right-left stimulus reached double the level of performance in the tests compared to the non-stimulated group after just a few sessions, the scientists reported in Current Biology.

In contrast, those stimulated with a left-right current saw their performance drop to about the same level as six-year-old children.

Students who received a fake ”placebo” stimulus had results that fell half way between those of the other two groups.

Kadosh, who led the research, said: ”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.

Christopher Chambers of Cardiff University‘s School of Psychology, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were ”intriguing” and could have far-reaching implications.

”The results of this study ... have exciting ramifications for the use of brain stimulation techniques in other domains,” he said in an email comment.

”The ability to tweak activity in parts of the brain, turning it slightly ‘up‘ or ‘down‘ at will, opens the door to treating a range of psychiatric and neurological problems, like compulsive gambling or visual impairments following stroke.”

The scientists also postulated that in the near future the technique may help people with dyscalculia, or ”number blindness” - the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia.

“We‘ve shown before that we can induce dyscalculia, and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at mathematics, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia, with a possible benefit to the general public.

Commenting on the research, Dr Christopher Chambers further said, “This is a really intriguing finding, showing that brain stimulation can boost numerosity skills, enhancing the ability to learn the link between arbitrary symbols and numbers, and then processing the symbols as though they actually are numbers.

“The findings add to a growing body of research showing that certain types of brain stimulation, in certain contexts, can enhance brain function.

“One obvious implication for these findings lies in the development of methods for enhancing numerical skills in the general population, even for those who are not clinically impaired. Brain stimulation methods… also have a lot of potential applications in promoting recovery, following brain injury or developmental disorders.”

“Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we‘re lucky it might... help some people to cope better with mathematics.” The Oxford researchers said.

In addition, a lecturer at the department of Psychiatry at the University of Lagos College of Medicine, Dr. Erin, also gave credence to the procedure. He said ‘Different parts of the brain when stimulated, can perform better than before. For example, the area of the brain which is meant for speech, if stimulated, electrically or magnetically, the functions could be heightened‘.

He however, maintained that the procedure is not novel as such. “It is similar to Electro-convulsive therapy in that they both use electric shock. However, the Transcranial direct current stimulation is the application of weak electrical currents to modulate the activity of neurons in the brain while the ECT is majorly a therapeutic procedure which employs high electric voltage to cause a convulsion for mood control.”

 

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