A tiny electric current applied to the back of the head can significantly improve a person’s mathematical skills for up to six months, a study has found.
The effect can even be reversed by changing the flow of the current to the opposite side of the head, which results in a person becoming significantly worse at handling numbers, scientists said.
Being able to enhance or impair a person’s numerical skills with small electrical currents could lead to new ways of helping the estimated one in five people with various degrees of dyscalculia, or “number blindness”, said Roi Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University.
“I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings,” Dr Cohen Kadosh said.
“We’ve shown before that we can temporarily induce dyscalculia, and now it seems we might also be able to make someone better at maths. 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 bettere with maths,” he said.
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, involved numeracy tests on 15 young adults who were divided into three groups while subjected to small electric currents of about 1 milliamp applied to the surface of the skull above the two parietal lobes on each side of the back of the head.
One group had the positive electrode of the transcranial stimulation equipment, which delivers the current, applied to the right parietal lobe, while a second group had it applied to the left parietal lobe. The third group had a “sham” stimulation to act as a control for the experiment.
Each volunteer was trained for a period of six days in tests involving the handling of artificial numbers – symbols they had never seen before which they were told represented numbers – while they were subjected to the non-invasive, transcranial stimulation.
The scientists found that the volunteers whose right pariental lobes were stimulated by the positive electrode delivering the electric current got significantly better in handling numbers compared to either the control group or the group whose left parietal lobes were stimulated.
“Our findings are important because they establish [electrical stimulation] as a tool for intervention in cases of atypical numerical development or loss of numerical abilities due to stroke or degenerative illnesses,” the scientists say in their scientific report.
“To date, no pharmacological interventions have been found that could target numerical cognition directly without holding substantial side effects for other domains, such as attention. Therefore, the specificity of the current findings make the use of [electrical stimulation] attractive in the field of rehabilitation of developmental and acquired disorders in numerical cognition,” they say.
Christopher Chambers, a psycholoists from the University of Cardiff, said the findings were really intriguing and add to the growing body of research showing that certain types of brain stimulation, in certain contexts, can enhance brain function.
“One obvious implication for these findings lies in the development of methods for enhancing numerical skills in the general population, even for those who are not clinically impaired. Brain stimulation methods... also have a lot of potential applications in promoting recovery following brain injury or developmental disorders,” Dr Chambers said.