Gentle electric shocks to brain boost maths ability

Five-day course results in 27 per cent improvement in mental arithmetic, opening possibility of non-invasive aid to help students who fall behind

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 May, 2013, 2:32am


People who struggle with maths fare better after a course of gentle electric shocks to the brain, British scientists have claimed.

Psychologists at Oxford University found that students scored higher on mental arithmetic tasks after a five-day course of brain stimulation.

If future studies prove that it works - and is safe - the cheap and non-invasive procedure might be used routinely to boost the cognitive power of those who fall behind in maths, the scientists said.

Researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh zapped students' brains with a technique called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) while they performed simple calculations, or tried to remember mathematical facts by rote learning.

In the study, published in Current Biology, 25 students had electrical pulses fired across their brains, while 26 others had a sham treatment, in which they thought they had brain stimulation, but the equipment was turned off. In tests afterwards, the students whose brains were stimulated solved maths puzzles 27 per cent faster than the control group, suggesting their brains were working more efficiently.

"Our aim is to help those with poor numeracy, which is approximately 20 per cent of the population," said Cohen Kadosh.

"But we need to extend the results to the general population, and use more ecological settings, such as classrooms. There is of course more work to be done, but it is a promising direction."

Cohen Kadosh said the improvement lasted for six months after the stimulation, but other scientists were dubious about the claim. The result was based on 12 returning students - six who received stimulation, and six controls - who revisited the lab six months later.

"The work is technically impressive and an elegant illustration of how brain stimulation can have immediate benefits for learning that are linked to changes in brain physiology," a psychologist at Cardiff University, Chris Chambers, said.

"I'm sceptical about the conclusion that TRNS boosted maths ability even six months after it was applied. The claim is based on a very small sample and a one-tailed statistical analysis that would have been non-significant using a standard test.

"My worry is that the six-month effect, as intriguing as it appears, could be a false discovery. I would love to see this effect replicated in a sample that is larger and well powered, because if true it could have important implications for basic neuroscience and the treatment of various clinical conditions. But until such data appears, the six-month claim remains weak in my view."

Amanda Ellison, who studies brain stimulation for the rehabilitation of patients at Durham University, said the procedure still looked promising. "The next issue will be understanding the mechanism of this effect so that the technique can be applied to more functions. However, the impact for neuro-rehabilitation, for example, is hopeful," she said.

Cohen Kadosh and colleagues have published previous studies showing how other forms of brain stimulation can make people better at learning and processing numbers. "Maths is a highly complex cognitive faculty that is based on a myriad of different abilities," Cohen Kadosh said. "If we can enhance mathematics … there is a good chance that we will be able to enhance simpler cognitive functions."

He said that if future experiments with TRNS continued to show positive results, the technique could be used in clinics, classrooms and even at home to help people who struggle with particular cognitive tasks.

Additional reporting by Reuters