Mild brain shock may improve math skills

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Bad at math? An electrical jolt to the brain may be just what the doctor ordered.

A new study finds that painless electrical stimulation to the brain helped people perform a set of calculations faster than people who didn't receive the shocks. Not only that, the skills appeared to last long-term.

"With just five days of cognitive training and noninvasive, painless brain stimulation, we were able to bring about long-lasting improvements in cognitive and brain functions," study author Roi Cohen Kadosh, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., said in a statement.

About 20 percent of healthy children and adults struggle with arithmetic, the researchers estimate. Neurodegenerative brain conditions or strokes can also negatively impact cognitive functions required to carry out calculations.

The researchers employed a new method of electrical stimulation called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), on an area of the brain responsible for arithmetic skills, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. A group of 25 students was divided to receive either TRNS or "sham" stimulation. The shocks were too weak for the participants to actually feel.

An example of a calculation was 32 - 17 + 5 = 20.

After five days of training, those with the TRNS shocks improved both the speed of their calculations and the memory recall of their math skills on subsequent testing, compared with the other group.

The effects persisted six months later on follow-up testing, according to the researchers. But only 12 of the 25 students (six TRNS group, six sham) participated in the follow-up portion of the study.

"Such findings have significant implications for basic and translational neuroscience, highlighting TRNS as a viable approach to enhancing learning," wrote the researchers.

Cohen's team conducted a study in 2010 that found shocks to the brain helped five students better learn a series of symbols that they had never seen before but were told represented various numbers.

"Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but if we're successful, it might be able to help some people to cope better with math," Cohen Kadosh said at the time to LiveScience.

Whether brain stimulating machines will be rolled out to classrooms remains up for debate.

"The findings are intriguing," Dr. Daniel Ansari, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, said to Nature. He was not involved in the research, and pointed out he doesn't find the long-term improvements impressive because only a small number of participants returned for follow-up testing.

"The training used here is highly contrived and does not resemble the way in which math skills are typically acquired," he added

Dr. Colleen Loo, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Australia, also was not confident in the technology's widespread use.

"If the electrodes are not correctly applied, it could cause scalp burns," Loo told HealthDay. "Also, the exact placement of the positive and negative electrodes is essential, otherwise you could create quite different brain effects, including negative effects. There is still a lot more we need to know about this technology."

The research was published May 16 in Current Biology.

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