Brain Stimulation Leads to Improved Math Skills, Says Study

VIDEO: UTHealths Dr. Richard Frye says the device helps the brain reorganize, repair.
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Math: People either love it or hate it. For all the haters out there, what if a little zap to the brain could put you on the road to math whizdom?

A new study from the University of Oxford found that applying electrical currents to certain parts of the brain improved a person's mathematical performance for up to six months.

"We are very excited to see these results," said Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford and lead author of the study. "We actually aimed to get to this stage in a few years, but we got here sooner than expected."

The researchers used a kind of stimulation known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. It is a non-invasive technique where a weak electrical current is applied to the parietal lobe, an area of the brain responsible for numerical understanding, spatial sense and navigation.

The study was small and still in the early stages of research, which caused some doctors to voice skepticism about whether practical applications would ever arise in the findings. Still, the developments are exciting in the realm of brain research.

Until this point, researchers said there had not been a treatment that targets numerical ability without having significant side effects to other areas of the brain, such as impaired attention.

"I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings," Kadosh said in the study. "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."

The Nuts and Bolts

Fifteen healthy adults with normal mathematical abilities were involved in the study. Each participant had to learn a series of fake symbols that represented numbers while receiving the noninvasive brain stimulation.

The results, published in the journal Current Biology, showed that the brain stimulation to the parietal lobe improved participants' ability to learn the new numbers compared to those who were not zapped or those who were zapped in other areas of the brain. The improvements lasted six months after the week-long exercise.

Dyscalculia

Kadosh said that the stimulation could help people with a variety of disabilities that stem from the parietal lobe.

About 15 to 20 percent of the population has moderate to severe numerical disabilities, and many other people lose their number-processing skills as a result of stroke, dementia or other neurodegenerative diseases.

Dyscalculia is a disability in which people have specific difficulty in learning mathematics. It is associated with dyslexia because many people easily confuse math symbols and numbers.

Dr. Stefani Hines is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Beaumont Hospital's Center for Human Development in Oakland County, Mich. She often sees children with learning disabilities such as dyscalculia.

"I'm working in the trenches and I've never heard of this as a treatment for math disabilities," Hines said. "This might hold some promises at some point in the future if we can figure out what population it will serve and we make sure there are no risky side effects."

Dyscalculia.org is a website described as a global resource for people with math learning disabilities. Renee Newman, president of the organization, said that the study's findings are significant.

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