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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Electrical Stimulation Might Improve The Brain's Capacity For Math  

Alice G. Walton

Alice G. Walton, Contributor
I cover health, medicine, psychology and neuroscience.
5/16/2013 @ 1:47PM |5,189 views        

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For people who aren’t so good at math, a mild form of brain stimulation may improve your proficiency. The relatively new form of electrical stimulation is apparently gentler than previously tested methods, so you don’t feel as much like your head is being zapped. And a new study, carried out by a team at the University of Oxford, has implications not only for math, but possibly for “stimulating” other types of cognitive skills. Since math ability relies on fairly high-level cognition, the authors suggest that applying it to lower-level ones will be, well, a no-brainer in the end.

In previous research, Oxford’s Roi Cohen Kadosh and colleagues had found that a form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which places electrodes on the skull, helped people learn and remember a novel set of numbers. This form was effective at improving certain math skills, but not always pleasant for the subject, and came with some adverse effects.

But the new study uses a different form of stimulation, known as transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), which applies randomly fluctuating currents (within certain parameters) to the head. According to Cohen Kadosh, the nice part is you don’t feel any of its brain stimulating action. In the study, he and colleagues focused on an area of the brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which has been strongly implicated in our ability to play with numbers in our heads.

As they were undergoing the stimulation, 25 Oxford students complete numbers tasks involving bizarre calculations: for example, 4 # 12 = 17. They did these for five days, and improved over time. The control group received sham stimulation while learning the new math. At the end of the training period, the participants who’d received TRNS were significantly faster at doing the calculations than the control group – and these changes seemed to persist over time.

“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,” says Cohen Kadosh. When students were called back to the lab six months later, they TRNS group was still 28% faster at solving the problems.

So what exactly is the TRNS doing to the brain to account for these improvements? The authors were interested in illustrating just this, so they tracked various measures of brain metabolism in the TRNS group and the controls. What they found was fascinating: blood flow in the area was actually reduced in the TRNS group, but oxygen consumption was not. This suggests that brain cells were working more efficiently, firing more with more synchronization, which could be the main effect of TRNS. If electric “noise” is reduced, the authors explain, it would mean that less blood flow is required for the same amount of brain activity.

The results of this study might be far reaching. In addition to the 5-7% of the population who suffers from dyscalculia (the numbers form of dyslexia), about 20% of school-age children have significant problems in math. This technique might help them gain better skills. It might also be applied, in different ways, to the great number of people who have various cognitive problems due to neurodevelopmental disorders or neurodegenerative diseases.

“Maths is a highly complex cognitive faculty that is based on a myriad of different abilities,” Cohen Kadosh says. “If we can enhance mathematics, therefore, there is a good chance that we will be able to enhance simpler cognitive functions.”

While TRNS hasn’t been associated with any adverse effects, TDCS, mentioned earlier, has recently been linked to certain adverse neurological effects, by Cohen Kadosh and his team themselves.

Future research will have to assess whether any costs come along with TRNS, as well as how long the beneficial effects really last.

It’s exciting, if a little troublesome, to think about the applications that might exist with this type of stimulation. If you’re preparing for a test or about to do your tax refund, will you be able to go to your local stimulation center for a little pre-event zap? Will mild brain stimulation be the new Adderall? Hopefully it will be reserved for people with documented math disabilities or brain disorders, but time will tell what the applications may be.

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