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Electrical Brain Stimulation May Raise Math Skill

Study Shows Technique Improves Number Skills for People Who Have Math Disability
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

X-ray of human head with math symbol

Nov. 4, 2010 -- Electrical brain stimulation can help boost math skills for up to six months, finds a new study published in Current Biology.

While the people in the new study did not have any math deficits, close to 20% of individuals do have a moderate to severe math disability, and even more will lose their numerical abilities as a result of stroke or neurodegenerative disease.

The stimulation technique used in the new study -- transcranial direct current stimulation -- involves applying a weak but constant current to the brain to affect neuron (brain cell) activity. This technology is sometimes used to treat people who have sustained neurological damage following a stroke.

Fifteen college students aged 20 to 22 participated in six, two-hour sessions in which they received either electrical brain stimulation to enhance or impair neuron activity or a sham procedure. The stimulation was applied to the part of the brain responsible for numerical understanding (the parietal lobe).

During the experiment the students were asked to learn a series of artificial numbers, based on symbols that they had never seen before, while they received the brain stimulation.

The results showed that the electrical brain stimulation improved the students’ ability to learn the new numbers and that these improvements lasted up to six months.

In addition, the electrical stimulation did not alter any other of the brain's cognitive functions.

Potential Uses of Brain Stimulation

"I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings," says Roi Cohen Kadosh, PhD, of the University of Oxford, England, in a news release. "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 maths."

The next step is to test technology among individuals with math learning disabilities.

"To date no pharmacological interventions have been found that could target numerical cognition directly without holding substantial side effects for other [brain] domains, such as attention," the researchers conclude.

"This is an extremely interesting and exciting technique that can alter the balance of neuron activity, and may have a wide range of applications depending on what part of the brain is stimulated," says Robert Cancro, MD, the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Psychiatry at New York University in New York City.

"More work is needed, but these findings are certainly suggestive that this can have an impact," he says.

Children with math or reading learning disabilities may benefit from this type of treatment, he says. "It is a very safe technique. The downside is minimal."

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