A Small Shock To The System May Help Brain With Math

May 16, 2013
Originally published on May 17, 2013 8:59 am

Stimulating the brain with a very small electrical current through the forehead could boost a student's ability to learn and remember basic mathematics, a provocative experiment suggests.

The work, published online Thursday by the journal Current Biology, could help those who struggle with mental arithmetic. But the study was small and the long-term effect wasn't profound.

The study tested something called transcranial random noise stimulation, a technique that sends a tiny current to the brain.

The current, generated by a small electronic device, is delivered through two electrodes attached to the temple. The electricity seems to affect the brain's neurons, which themselves use electrical signals to communicate with each other.

The results are preliminary, and alpha parents seeking an edge for their children shouldn't risk electrocution. "Do not try this at home," says Jackie Thompson, a psychologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

Some studies suggest that up to 1 in 5 of us has difficulty learning basic math, according to Thompson. Thompson and her colleagues thought that very slight electrical stimulation could help. Electrical stimulation has sometimes been shown to boost basic cognitive skills, Thompson says.

To find out if it could help with more complex brain functions, the team tried mathematics. They took 25 students and asked them to memorize a series of made-up mathematical equations. For example, 4 # 12 = 17. The idea was to test their ability to memorize sums that they hadn't seen before.

EDITOR'S ADD NOTE, Friday, May 17, 10:48 a.m.

The team also had the students execute problems with several arithmetic steps, such as 12 - 4 + 10 + 12 = 30. The idea was to test their ability both to calculate math problems and to memorize sums that they hadn't seen before.

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All the students had two electrodes stuck to their foreheads, but only half received the tiny electrical signal. The signal was too small to be felt, and even the researchers conducting the tests didn't know who had received a signal and who hadn't.

When they went back and checked, they found that those who had received the stimulation appeared to memorize their sums faster and better than those who hadn't. Moreover, the effect seemed to last for six months after the stimulation. But it wasn't as strong.

Researchers aren't quite sure how it works, but co-author author Thompson says that the electrical signal may get brain cells synchronized: "Kind of like if you have eight rowers in a boat, if they're all rowing together they go faster," she says.

Researchers hope that their new technique could eventually be developed into a tool to help those with learning disabilities, or anyone who finds they are severely math challenged. But Thompson says that more research is needed to see what method of stimulation works best.

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