A zap away from better maths?

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 08:18 21/05/2013

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Battling with fractions? A short jolt to the brain might do the trick.

Scientists at the United Kingdom's Oxford University have discovered that a person's mathematical skills increase when a gentle pulse of electricity is applied to the brain.

The study, published today in international journal Current Biology, took 25 people and measured how their maths skills fared when a small electrical current - a fraction of the energy found in a AA battery - was applied to the prefrontal cortex.

Head researcher, cognitive neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh, along with a team of scientists, recruited 25 volunteers who practised maths equations while subjected to either the electrical current or a fake simulated current.

Each person had two sponge-covered electrodes fixed to either side of the forehead, which targeted an area of the prefrontal cortex considered key to arithmetic processing.

In 2010, Cohen had already discovered that combined with training, electrical brain stimulation could improve people's maths skills.

The latest study however, showed how much of an improvement could be made, and how it applied to real-world maths skills.

Jacqueline Thompson, a PhD. student in Cohen Kadosh's lab and a co-author on the study, said the electrical current was slowly ramped up to about 1 milliamp and then fluctuated randomly between.

The study found the two groups performed at the same level on the first day.

But over the next 4 days, the group receiving brain stimulation along with training learned to do the equations up to five times faster than the group who received the fake current.

The study found the effects of increased brainpower lasted for up to 6 months after the electrical treatment.

Despite the breakthrough, it's still not clear how the treatment works.

Thompson said it could be that the current helps synchronise neuron firing, enabling the brain to work more efficiently.  

Although electrical currents to stimulate brain activity is not a new idea - think electroconvulsive therapy - scientists say the finding is an exciting one. 

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