Maths skills boosted by electrical impulse

Researchers at Oxford University have found that an electrical current applied to the brain could improve mathematical performance. It doesn’t mean we’ll all be zapping our brains and retraining as mathematicians, but it could bring new ways to treat the effects of strokes and degenerative conditions.

The study involved passing a one milliamp current through the parietal lobe, a current too small to be detected by the test subject. The parietal lobe (marked above in yellow) is the section of the brain most associated with processing information gathered through the senses, in turn providing such skills as spatial awareness and navigation. (It’s presumably the part of your brain that hurts while playing later levels of Portal.)

During the study, the test subjects carried out calculations in which the numbers had been replaced by artificial symbols, meaning that rather than merely testing calculation, the experiment tested “the mapping of number into space.”

Over a six-day testing and training period, participants showed a specific and significant improvement when the current passed from right to left. However, it also found a significant decrease in skills among those where the current was passed in the other direction.

Those subjects whose skills improved were tested again six months later and the benefits appeared to have remained in place. (Rather worryingly, the report on the results doesn’t mention retesting those who got the left-to-right current and showed decreased skills.)

The researchers believe the technique could potentially be used in two ways. First, it could treat dyscalculia, a learning difficulty that makes it harder to comprehend mathematics. Second, it could help reverse or limit the effects of medical conditions or events that lead to the relevant skills declining.

It also raises the possibility that the electrical stimulation could improve other areas of brain performance if applied to specific sections of the brain.

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