Shocks to the brain improve mathematical abilities

From Nature:

BrainThe 'three Rs' of reading, writing and arithmetic could become four. Random electrical stimulation, a technique that applies a gentle current through the skull, leads to a long-lasting boost in the speed of mental calculations, a small laboratory study of university students has found1. If unobtrusive brain stimulation proves safe and effective in larger classroom trials, the technology could augment traditional forms of study, says Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the study. “Some people will say that those who are bad at mathematics will stay bad. That might not be the case.” Cohen Kadosh’s team made headlines in 2010, when it showed that a different form of electrical jolt — transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS) — helped volunteers to learn and remember a number system made up of unfamiliar symbols.

In TDCS, electrical current flows continuously between electrodes placed on different parts of the scalp, activating neurons in one area and quieting them in another. It feels like a baby tugging gently on your hair. By contrast, with transcranial random-noise stimulation (TRNS), “people ask ‘are you sure it’s on?’” says Cohen Kadosh. As the name implies, the technique involves electrical currents flowing through electrodes in random pulses, activating neurons in multiple brain areas. There is no evidence to suggest that either method is unsafe, he says. In the latest study1, his team tasked 25 Oxford students with rote memorization of mathematical facts (such as 2 x 17 = 34) and more complicated calculations (for example, 32 – 17 + 5). Thirteen volunteers received TRNS to their prefrontal cortices, a part of the brain involved in higher cognition, while doing these problems for five days in a row. They became faster at both tasks than volunteers in the control group, who were electrically stimulated only briefly.

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