Brain Stimulation Leads to Improved Math Skills, Says Study

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"The researcher's findings offer hope for these cases, where the need and desire to perform mathematically remains alongside a frustrating inability to learn, remember, reason, and think with numbers," Newman wrote in an e-mail.

In real-life application, the study's author said that the stimulation might indeed help future patients.

"It's not a magic wand, but coupled with training on the material, the stimulation could hypothetically enhance the student's math ability," Kadosh.

Treatment in Degenerative Diseases

Brain stimulation has also gained attention as an experimental treatment for degenerative diseases and stroke, and numerous clinical trials have been set up in recent years for patients who suffer from such illnesses.

"There is a lot of work going on to find optimal ways to do this stimulation," said Dr. Bruce Dobkin, professor of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "But there are still a lot of questions, like where exactly to stimulate, what are the parameters, the best frequency, force and amplitude, and how often this treatment should take place."

Real-Life Possibilities?

To break it down simply, Dobkin said that everything in the brain is like electrical activity and electrical stimulation bumps up that activity between the nerve cells.

"The flexibility and adaptability in the brain is pretty miraculous," Dobkin said. "It's nothing at all magical, but the real question is: Will this tool be powerful enough for general use, especially in rehab or to enhance learning in developmental disorders."

Dr. Edward Taub, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that the brain stimulation in stroke rehab has, thus far, only showed a small, if any, benefit.

"There's always an improvement compared to immediately after the stroke, but there is no evidence that any method of remediation, rehab, reeducation, whatever you want to call it, works in stroke patients right now," Taub said.

About 750,000 Americans experience stroke every year, and it is the leading cause of adult disability in the country.

Taub said a developed and proven treatment would be a great contribution to stroke research.

"If this works, then it would be a breakthrough, but we're very far from that point," Taub continued. "However, this is an avenue to pursue."

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

But with such groundbreaking discoveries comes skepticism.

Dr. David Loewenstein, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami School of Medicine, agreed that much more research is required before it is used in real life. Loewenstein said further trials require appropriate control groups to make sure that any observed effects of the stimulation are actual changes and not placebo effects.

"One would also have to show improvements in mathematical abilities that had real world applicability such as the ability to balance a checkbook," Loewenstein said.

"While this is an interesting study on normal [patients], much would have to be done to determine whether this technique could have a meaningful effect in rehabilitation."

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