Electricity adds everything up

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A University study has been published in Current Biology, claiming that maths skills could be boosted for up to six months by applying random electrical noise to the brain.

The new procedure, called ‘transcranial random noise stimulation’ (TRNS), is painless and involves placing electrodes on, but not inside, the head, and stimulating the brain with electrical noise.

After undergoing the simulation, participants were asked to perform two mathematical tasks, one focussing on calculation and the other on rote-learning skills. In both cases – after a short initial period where neither group showed any particular advantage – the TRNS group clearly performed better overall.

Moreover, having received TRNS for the five consecutive days, the subjects retained their improvements up to  six months later.

NIRS optical brain imaging showed that TRNS stimulated parts of the brain into more effective use of oxygen and nutrients, thus improving the subjects’ mathematical skills.

The study was led by Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, of the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, whose research was prompted by previous studies in 2010 study that applying a different kind of electric current to the brain would have a similar effect on maths skills.

The study was made up of 25 volunteers, all Oxford students, split into two groups, half of which undertook the TRNS while the other half did not.

The research has been touted as a possible tool for helping people who suffer from problems with mental arithmetic, for a variety of reasons, including learning disorders such as dyscalculia, strokes, or neurodegenerative diseases.

It has however been stressed that potential adverse side-effects of TRNS must first be investigated before practical implementation can be undertaken, lest the electrical stimulation boost one part of the brain at the expense of another.

Naomi Cockrill, a first year medic at Merton, is thus somewhat sceptical of the study’s findings saying: “Whilst the future of ‘transcranial random noise stimulation’ has the potential to be very exciting, I would argue that it is too soon to speculate about the improvements that could be seen in stroke sufferers or those with dyscalculia.

“The sample size used was reasonably small and the results taken after six months used only 12 of the original 25 volunteers.”

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