Brain stimulation improves math skills

Shocking the human brain (file photo) with mild electric currents improves number processing. Photograph by Fred Hossler/Getty Images

Ker Than, National Geographic

Stimulating the brain with a nonpainful electrical current can jump-start peoples’ math skills, scientists say. The finding could lead to new, long-lasting treatments for people with moderate to severe math impairments such as dyscalculia, or “math dyslexia.” This learning disability prevents a person from grasping even simple math concepts, according to study leader Roi Cohen Kadosh, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Treating such conditions is “exactly our aim,” Cohen Kadosh said.

The team used a noninvasive method called transcranial direct current stimulation to apply a weak current to the brains of 15 healthy adult volunteers for six days as they took part in a learning task. The current was applied using pads on the scalp. The subjects, who had normal mathematical abilities, were first trained to mentally associate nine random symbols with numbers. This was done to mimic the learning process that children go through as they first learn how to associleate numerical values with digits, Cohen Kadosh said.

Counterintuitive Improvement: During each daily training session, the study participants received a 20-minute-long electrical stimulation to their parietal lobes, the part of the brain that is crucial for processing numbers. Following each training, the researchers had the participants take tests that have been shown in children to correlate with mathematical achievements later in life. In one test, participants were shown two of the symbols they had learned on a screen. One of the symbols might represent the number two and the other the number four. However, the two symbol would be intentionally bigger than the four symbol.

The researchers then asked the participants which “number” was physically larger, the 2 symbol or the 4 symbol. People with normal mathematical abilities have trouble with this task, though very young children and people with dyscalculia don’t, Cohen Kadosh explained. That’s because in normal brains, different mental processes—in this case size and evaluating numbers—interfere with one another.

When the participants’ brains were electrically stimulated, their performance in the task worsened—proving that their math skills had improved declining performance is a sign that the number symbols have become deeply ingrained in the participants’ minds—thus showing the treatment actually improved mathematical abilities.

Brain Boost is Long-Lasting. When the team tested the participants again six months later, they were surprised to find that the participants still performed poorly on the task—meaning the “improvements” were still present. Scientists don’t fully understand how electrical stimulation enhances certain mental abilities, but one possibility is that the current influences brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. For example, electrical stimulation might reduce the effects of certain neurotransmitters that either interfere with or help with learning.

Ker Than, National Geographic

What a breakthrough!

Does this mean that in the future the human race will be smarter?

Will people be willing to subject themselves to stimulation to become smarter in order to even the playing field?

I also wonder what kind of repercussions this will have in the world of college acceptance since more people will have higher SAT (math) scores