Oxford research improves maths skills through brain stimulation

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Recent research at the University of Oxford has shown that all it takes to improve your maths skills is five days of cognitive training and a little non-invasive brain stimulation. The research, carried out at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, doesn’t promise to awaken your inner-Einstein but will give you a boost in your ability to do mental arithmetic like splitting your next bill. In the near future it might have a place in assisting people with learning disabilities and those with neurodegenerative diseases.

If the brain stimulation sounds intimidating, it’s not. It’s a far cry from the electroshock therapy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest”. It works by applying very small amounts of electricity, specifically something known as “random electrical noise”, to specific regions of the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp. A literal thinking cap. This increases the excitability of the neurones, allowing the brain to generate signals more easily.

The exact technique, “transcranial random noise stimulation” (tRNS), is a relatively new one, only a few years old. How the technique increases the excitability of individual neurones is currently unknown, but on a larger scale it’s believed to increase the synchronisation of their firing, and increase the efficiency with which oxygen and other nutrients are transported to the stimulated areas of the brain.

This technique differs from an older one, which garnered some publicity a couple of years ago, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for its ability to increase rote learning ability. It too, involved the application of electrodes to the scalp but care had to be taken that the polarity was in the right orientation, and it only allowed subjects to increase their ability to learn new numbers or solve puzzles. This improvement in rote learning and recall didn’t transfer to wider mathematical abilities.

tRNS, however can be applied in a polarity independent fashion, meaning that it is easier to set up and it’s also less perceptible during stimulation, so subjects are less aware that they are being stimulated than with tDCS.

This study recruited only 25 volunteers, divided between the control group and a group to receive the brain stimulation. Both groups were trained at two varieties of cognitive tasks; calculations, which involved doing complex arithmetic tasks and drills. The group to receive stimulation had the tRNS applied for 20 minutes in addition to these tasks.

This cognitive training and brain stimulation continued for five consecutive days, after which subsequent tests confirmed improvements in both the speed of calculation and recall based learning in the stimulated group.

This is promising but what is amazing is that six months after this initial test, the improvements still remained.

This could point towards a future in which this technique is used in classrooms around the country to enable individuals to fulfil their potential, in particular those who fall behind in class or who have learning disabilities. Further research into any potential downsides of transcranial electrical stimulation are still needed, as are further experiments into how long the improvements last but in the meantime these results promise much in the fields of cognition and memory.

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