Nov. 4, 2010 -- 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.
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.
"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."
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."