Stimulating the brain with a weak current of electricity can enhance a person's math skills for up to six months without influencing other mental functions, new research finds.
These results could one day help treat the estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population who have moderate to severe numerical disabilities as well as those who have lost their number skills as a result of stroke or degenerative disease.
"I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings," said researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in England.
In the past, Cohen Kadosh and his colleagues showed they could temporarily cause dyscalculia — that is, math disability — using another method of brain stimulation, "and now it seems we might also be able to make someone better at math," he said.
People with severe numerical disabilities often cannot manage basic tasks such as understanding food labels or counting change in a supermarket, Cohen Kadosh explained. Poor numerical ability has also been linked to unemployment, low income, depression, low self-esteem and other problems.
"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 better with math," Cohen Kadosh said.
The researchers employed a brain stimulation technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation, a noninvasive method that applies a weak current to the brain constantly over a certain period of time to enhance or reduce the activity of neurons. Over the last decade, this technique has shown the potential to help people with a variety of brain problems — for instance, those who have suffered a stroke.
In the new research, Cohen Kadosh and his colleagues applied transcranial direct current stimulation to the parietal lobe, a brain region crucial for numerical understanding. The five university students who received the treatment possessed average abilities in math, and were asked to learn a series of artificial numbers — nine symbols they had never seen before that they were told represented various magnitudes — while they received the electric stimulation over the course of six days.
The scientists then investigated the volunteers' ability to solve whether a given artificial number was larger or smaller than another, and then asked the volunteers to place the numbers in the proper order. The scientists found the brain stimulation improved the students' ability to process the new numbers — improvements that lasted six months post-training.
This electrical stimulation of brain cells "can enhance numerical abilities with remarkable specificity and longevity," Cohen Kadosh told LiveScience. "There is still more research to be done on that before we can do that as a treatment, but this is the first and probably the most significant step."
They are now comparing how the brains and behaviors of people with and without severe numerical disabilities respond to the treatment.
"I think it is important to stress that parents should not zap their children's brain to make them better in math," Cohen Kadosh said. "I hope that with more research on this direction, we can come in a few years to a method to enhance numerical competence in a safe fashion."
The scientists detailed their findings online Nov. 4 in the journal Current Biology.
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