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By Winston Featherly-Bean
University neuroscientists have discovered that electrically stimulating the brain can produce a lasting improvement of mathematical ability.
For the research, an electrical current was applied to the part of the brain responsible for processing numerical problems.
Tests on 15 students, aged 20 and 21, revealed that electrical stimulation from the right to the left of the parietal lobe near the top of the brain improved ability to solve numerical problems, whilst the reverse gave students the mathematical ability of the average six year-old.
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, forms part of a project that attempts to find ways to help those with learning difficulties. It has just been published in the journal Current Biology.
Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, who led the research, said: “If this is successful in the future, we will be able to take people who have problems with numerical understanding and improve this by manipulating that part of the brain… We are just at the first stage, doing normal research.”
The team carried out the tests over six daily sessions. Volunteers were given nine invented symbols, each standing for different numbers.
Those who were stimulated by a current were more successful in processing the problems than those who were given a placebo.
“You cannot teach students maths and numbers so we invented new symbols and told the students the numerical relation to the symbols, mimicking how children learn at school,” said Cohen Kadosh.
“We delivered very weak electrical currents to the brain. In one group that received a specific type of stimulation their performance in tests with the symbols was much better. When we tested them six months later without any more training or stimulation, the effects had lasted.”
Participants in the experiment did not show any side effects and no potential risks in healthy adults have been found, but Cohen Kadosh said the experiment is “not advisable” for those who have had a stroke or suffer from conditions such as epilepsy.
The study carries on from his earlier research which proved that dyscalculia – difficulty in processing mathematical problems – could be temporarily caused by interfering with the brain’s electrical activity using magnetic fields.
According to studies, dyscalculia affects between three and six percent of the population. Up to one fifth of people have problems with numeracy, which affects everyday activities, such as telling the time and counting money, and hampers educational and employment opportunities. If the new research continues to be successful the findings could be used to treat people who have difficulties with mathematics.
Sue Flohr, from the British Dyslexia Association, said: “It’s [dyscalculia] certainly an under-recognised condition, but it can ruin lives. It makes it very hard to do everyday things like shopping or budgeting – you can go into a shop and find you’ve spent your month’s money without realising it.”
Wadham maths student Hannah Beckett said: “This research is very interesting and if it could benefit children who struggle with numeracy then it could make a huge difference to their lives. It’s about the learning process though so it couldn’t make any difference to someone who’s already got the mathematical knowledge.”
Cohen Kadosh and his team intend to carry out further research in the future.