Struggling with math? Plug in to improve

Thu May 16, 2013 2:19pm EDT
 
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Applying painless but targeted electrical stimulation to parts of the brain that play a role in number manipulation may in future be a way to help people who struggle with math, scientists said on Thursday.

Researchers who experimented with a type of brain stimulation called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) found that in less than a week it improved students' performance in both calculation and rote learning of mathematical tasks.

The researchers stressed this was a small, early-stage study with more research required, but said the technique may one day help people with learning problems or neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. It could also help people reach their full potential in math and other tricky subjects.

The experiment involved 51 students from Oxford who were asked to perform two arithmetic tasks testing their calculation and rote learning abilities over a five-day period. Around half the volunteers were given TRNS while performing the tasks each day.

"With just five days of cognitive training and non-invasive, painless brain stimulation, we were able to bring about long-lasting improvements in cognitive and brain functions," said Roi Cohen Kadosh of Britain's Oxford University, who led the study.

The improved performance was maintained for six months after the stimulation and training, he said.

TRNS applies random electrical noise to targeted regions of the cortex - a part of the brain important for memory and attention - through stimulation electrodes placed on the surface of the scalp. It is non-invasive, painless and relatively cheap.

Publishing his findings in the journal Current Biology, Cohen Kadosh said it was not entirely clear how the stimulation works, but evidence suggests it helps the brain work more efficiently by making neurons fire more synchronously.   Continued...

 
Students take a year-end math test at the Manuel Bisbe high school in Havana June 26, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa