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Bad at Math? Zap it Away With Electrical Currents, Scientists Say

May 16, 2013 11:09 PM EDT
Innate numerical ability can predict future scores in math, a study has found.
(Photo : Reuters)

Could zapping the brain with weak current of electricity be enough to make math as easy as 1-2-3? Researchers say it's possible, but the effect will only last for six months.

Psychologists at Oxford University found that students scored higher on mental arithmetic tasks after a five-day course of brain stimulation, according to the study published in Current Biology on Thursday.

In an experiment, researchers used a non-invasive brain stimulation technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, with 15 test subjects for twenty minutes a day over a six-day period. The amount of electricity so small that most patients don't even know it is happening, it feels "like a baby tugging gently on your hair," said Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the study. To contrast results, researchers gave other test subjects a sham treatment, in which they thought they had brain stimulation, but the equipment was turned off.

As the current is running through the test subjects, the volunteers were taught a system of numbers. Later on, the researchers them tests to see how well they were able to absorb the information. The results found that the subjects that received TDCS brain stimulation did a better job in remembering the numbers compared to the placebo group.

Remarkably enough, the volunteers who received the treatment still preformed better six months later, compared to the control group.

Other studies have shown that TDCS can improve a variety of brain functions, from pain management to rehabilitation after traumatic events, said Jim Stinear, Director of the Neuralplasticity Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, according to Discovery News. But what is "really remarkable," is that it can last six months.

If inconspicuous brain stimulation proves safe and effective in larger trial groups, the technology could augment traditional forms of study, says Kadosh. "Some people will say that those who are bad at mathematics will stay bad. That might not be the case."

Scientists also believe that using electrodes to stimulate areas deep within the brain might be able to help patients with severe obsessive compulsive disorder who do not respond to other treatment, according to Reuters.

As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that either method is unsafe, Kadosh says, but he does warn against trying this at home. "We are not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings."

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