If you’re one of the many people, yours truly included, who always found math class a bit on the difficult side then maybe all you needed was a jolt of electricity. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been used as a psychiatric treatment since the 1930s and is still used today, most commonly as a treatment for severe depression. Now researchers are reporting that applying an electrical current to the brain could enhance a person’s mathematical performance for up to six months without impacting their other cognitive functions.
The researchers from the University of Oxford aren’t suggesting electric shocks for anyone about to sit their math exams but say the findings could lead to treatments for the estimated 20 percent of people with moderate to severe numerical disabilities. This includes sufferers of dyscalculia, or those who lose their number skills as a result of stroke or degenerative disease.
"We've shown before that we can temporarily induce dyscalculia [with another method of brain stimulation], and now it seems we might also be able to make someone better at math. 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 maths," said Roi Cohen Kadosh, Wellcome Research Career Development Fellow at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology.
Using a noninvasive method of brain stimulation known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), whereby a weak current is applied to the brain constantly over time to enhance or reduce neuron activity, the researchers targeted the parietal lobe – a region of the brain crucial for numerical understanding.
The study participants, who had normal mathematical abilities, were asked to learn a series of artificial numbers – symbols they had never seen before that they were told represented numbers. The researchers then used standard testing methods for numerical competence to test the participants’ ability to automatically process the relationship of those artificial numbers to one another and to map them correctly in space.
The results showed that the tDCS treatment improved the participants’ ability to learn the new numbers, with the improvements lasting six months after the treatment.
Now they’ve shown that the tDCS treatment can improve the number processing abilities of people with normal mathematical ability, the researchers plan to test it on people with severe numerical disabilities.
While we may not see students strapping on electrodes as part of their math course, the research could have important consequences for people who, according to Cohen Kadosh, often cannot manage basic tasks like understanding food labels or counting change in a supermarket. Poor numerical ability has also been linked to unemployment and low income, depression, low self-esteem, and other problems, he said.