The technique may help people with dyscalculia, or “number blindness” in the future.
Pulsing an electrical current through your brain can boost your ability to do sums for up to six months, scientists have discovered. British-based researchers have found that passing a low current through a specific brain region can double your ability to do mathematics.
They believe in future the technique may help people with dyscalculia, or “number blindness” – the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia.
But it is important to get the wiring right. If the electricity flows in the wrong direction it has the opposite effect, creating a person with a poor head for figures.
The same team of Oxford University scientists previously showed that temporary dyscalculia could be induced with electrical brain stimulation.
In the new study, 15 student volunteers aged 20 and 21 were given a series of standard tests designed to assess numerical skills.
The participants were timed to see how quickly and accurately they could solve mathematical puzzles involving symbols representing numerical values.
During the tests, a one milliamp current was passed across the parietal lobes of two groups of students, while a third group received a “fake” stimulus.
The parietal lobe is a brain region that plays a crucial role in mathematical processing.
In one of the stimulated groups, the current flow was from the right to the left parietal lobe, while in the other the direction was reversed.
Volunteers who received the right-left stimulus reached double the level of performance in the tests compared to the non-stimulated group after just a few sessions, the scientists reported in the journal Current Biology.
In contrast, those stimulated with a left-right current saw their performance drop to about the same level as six-year-old children.
Students who received a fake “placebo” stimulus had results that fell half way between those of the other two groups.
Dr Cohen Kadosh, from Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, who led the research, said: “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.
“We’ve shown before that we can induce dyscalculia, and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at maths, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia, with a possible benefit to the general public.
“Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people cope better with maths.”
The study is part of a large-scale project funded by the Wellcome Trust charity aimed at helping people with learning difficulties get better at maths.
One test, the Stroop test, creates counter-intuitive problems. Often it employs colours, where, for instance, the word red is written in green ink. Here, larger values were shown as smaller images and vice versa.
Another task involved a mapping test where an image representing a value had to be correctly positioned between two others. In the same way, the number five is placed half way between a one and 9 on a line.
Commenting on the research, Dr Christopher Chambers, from the School of Psychology, University of Cardiff, said: “This is a really intriguing finding, showing that brain stimulation can boost numerosity skills, enhancing the ability to learn the link between arbitrary symbols and numbers, and then processing the symbols as though they actually are numbers.
“The findings add to a growing body of research showing that certain types of brain stimulation, in certain contexts, can enhance brain function.
“One obvious implication for these findings lies in the development of methods for enhancing numerical skills in the general population, even for those who are not clinically impaired. Brain stimulation methods … also have a lot of potential applications in promoting recovery following brain injury or developmental disorders.”