A treatment that can improve mathematical ability
might be calculated to appeal to anybody who struggles with their sums.
The prospect of just such a therapy has moved closer after new research at the University of Oxford, but it comes with a rather shocking catch: it involves stimulating the brain with electricity.
Neuroscientists have shown that applying an electrical current can either enhance or reduce the capacity to solve mathematical problems, depending on which side of the brain is stimulated.
“We are not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings and are now looking into the underlying brain changes,” said Roi Cohen Kadosh, who led the study, which is intended as a project to investigate treatments for dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia. The findings suggest that electrical therapy could be developed as a treatment for the 6 per cent of the population with the condition, which leaves people struggling with even basic mathematical understanding.
Such therapies, however, will also raise controversy because they could be used by people of ordinary or advanced numerical abilities to improve their skills, for example by students preparing for exams.
In the study it was people with mathematical ability
in the normal range who were shown to benefit from the brain stimulation
. This suggests that electrical therapy could become the next technology exploited for cognitive enhancement. Drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Provigil (modafinil
) are already used by some healthy people to improve alertness and concentration, as well as for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy
Dr Cohen Kadosh, said it was important for society to start thinking now about the ethics of electrical brain stimulation
. “If my child had a dyscalculia problem, I might well use this, once it has been shown to have no side-effects,” Dr Kadosh said. “But I wouldn’t use it just to get his grades up from A- to A+.”
In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, Dr Cohen Kadosh’s team set 15 student volunteers aged 20 and 21 a range of tests. The volunteers then received either electrical stimulation to the parietal lobes of the brain, which process maths problems, or a sham prodedure as a placebo.
When the current was applied so as to flow from the right parietal lobe to the left, the volunteers showed significantly improved scores, even six months after the procedure. When the current flowed from left to right, however, their scores fell. Those who received a placebo scored in between the stimulation groups.
Dr Cohen Kadosh said he did not yet know why the effects varied depending on the direction, but this probably reflected the greater importance of the right parietal lobe to maths. “Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people to cope better,” he said.
Christopher Chambers, of Cardiff University, said: “Brain stimulation
methods have a lot of potential applications in promoting recovery following brain injury or developmental disorders. The ability to tweak activity in parts of the brain also opens the door to treating a range of problems like compulsive gambling or visual impairments following stroke.”