If your math skills aren’t exactly up to par, your doctor may soon give your brain a little extra jolt to take care of the problem.
Researchers at the University of Oxford say transcranial random noise simulation (TRNS)—a non-invasive therapy that uses low levels of direct electrical current to excite neurons in the brain—can improve a person’s mathematical reasoning skills, even six months after treatment.
“Math is a highly complex cognitive faculty that is based on a myriad of different abilities,” researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh said in a press release. “If we can enhance mathematics, therefore, there is a good chance that we will be able to enhance simpler cognitive functions.”
While it may be used to boost math SAT scores, researchers say TRNS would best serve people with dyscalculia, the mathematical sibling of dyslexia that affects up to 20 percent of otherwise healthy children.
Though the electrical kick in the pants, so to speak, yields good results, researchers still aren’t sure exactly how or why it works.
Plugging In to Improve Math Skills
The University of Oxford researchers studied 25 healthy adults with no history of mental illness. Thirteen were given TRNS, while 12 were given a sham therapy.
Subjects performed mathematical calculation and repetitive memorization tests while receiving either TRNS to the prefrontal cortices—areas of the brain that allow humans to perform high-level reasoning tasks—or the sham therapy for five days in a row.
Those who received the legitimate therapy performed the tests faster and more accurately than those in the control group.
Six months later, researchers retested six of the subjects who received TRNS therapy and found that they responded to test questions 28 percent faster on average than the control subjects who were retested. TRNS affected their calculation abilities, but not their memorization skills.
“We have demonstrated that five consecutive days of TRNS-accompanied arithmetic training can markedly improve learning as assessed with both a deep-level cognitive processing calculation task and a shallow-level drill task,” researchers concluded in their study, published in the journal Current Biology.
The research team’s latest findings build on their prior work demonstrating that electrical currents to the brain can improve math skills. In prior published studies, the team used transcranial direct current stimulation, a therapy originally developed to treat people with brain injuries.
Similar research has shown that TRNS does not improve working memory, but other studies have demonstrated that just 10 minutes of therapy is capable of increasing neural excitability in the primary motor cortex by up to 50 percent for one hour.
It’s probably going to be a while before we strap electrical helmets on kids in algebra class, but these findings could help scientists develop new therapies for patients suffering from learning disabilities or traumatic brain injuries.
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