Electric brain stimulation improves maths performance

5 November 2010

Applying electrical current to the brain can enhance people’s mathematical abilities for up to six months, according to research by neuroscientists at Oxford University.

The research, published this week in Current Biology, demonstrates for the first time that electrical stimulation can successfully enhance mathematical abilities. It builds on earlier work by Dr Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University and his team that showed that a temporary impairment in the processing of mathematical problems (dyscalculia) can be induced using brain stimulation.

In the new study 15 student volunteers, aged 20-21, were taught symbols that represented different numerical values, and then timed to see how quickly and accurately they could complete a series of mathematical puzzles based on those symbols. Volunteers were given either a placebo or low (1mA) electrical stimuli that ran from right to left, or vice versa, across the parietal lobe – an area of the brain that is crucial for processing mathematical problems.

Those who received stimulation from the right to the left parietal lobe reached a high level of performance in these tasks after a few sessions, whereas those with stimulation from the left to the right parietal lobes significantly underperformed, mirroring the behaviour of 6 year-old children. The placebo group’s results fell somewhere between those of the two groups receiving stimulation. Control tests showed that the effect was specific to the learned symbols and did not affect other cognitive functions.

The tests used included the Stroop test (often used with colours where red is written in green ink for example; here larger values were displayed by smaller images and vice versa) and a mapping test (where the image of a value had to be correctly positioned between two others, similar to accurately placing a 5 halfway between a 1 and a 9 on a line). These are standard tests for assessing mathematical abilities and people with numerical disabilities, or children, consistently achieve low scores on these tests.

In both tasks those given the stimulation from right to left parietal lobes performed best. This group was re-tested six months after having been trained and were found to have maintained a high level of performance.

‘This is the first study from a large scale project funded by the Wellcome Trust that aims to provide ways to improve mathematical abilities in those with learning difficulties,’ said Dr Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, who is leading the research. ‘We are not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings and are now looking into the underlying brain changes.’

Dr Cohen Kadosh added: ‘We’ve shown before that we can induce dyscalculia, and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at maths, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia, with a possible benefit to the general public. Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.’

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Notes to editors

  • The paper Cohen Kadosh R, Soskic S, Iuculano T, Kanai R, & Walsh V. ‘Modulating neuronal activity produces specific and long lasting changes in numerical competence’ by Roi Cohen Kadosh and colleagues is to be published in Current Biology on 4 November 2010 . The work was carried out by a team of scientists from Oxford University and University College London.
  • The research looked at influencing newly-learned (rather than existing) mathematical abilities: volunteers were asked to learn new symbols, demonstrate that they had learned them, and then apply this knowledge to solving puzzles involving these symbols. Electrical stimulation was applied at the point when they were learning the symbols. The new research shows that right to left stimulation of the parietal lobe enhances the ability of volunteers to retain and apply this new knowledge to problems for at least six months. Previous work by the team showed that a similar induced impairment effect was short-lived.
  • The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.www.wellcome.ac.uk
  • Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe. It represents almost one-third of Oxford University’s income and expenditure, and two-thirds of its external research income. Oxford’s world-renowned global health programme is a leader in the fight against infectious diseases (such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and avian flu) and other prevalent diseases (such as cancer, stroke, heart disease and diabetes). Key to its success is a long-standing network of dedicated Wellcome Trust-funded research units in Asia (Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) and Kenya, and work at the MRC Unit in The Gambia. Long-term studies of patients around the world are supported by basic science at Oxford and have led to many exciting developments, including potential vaccines for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, which are in clinical trials.