Stimulating the brain with a very low electric current can enhance a person's math ability for up to six months, British neuroscientists said on Thursday.
Researchers at Britain's Oxford University studied 15 volunteers and demonstrated for the first time that electrical stimulation of the brain improved their performance in a series of math assessments, and continued to do so half a year later.
"We're 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 Oxford's Cohen Kadosh, who led the study.
"Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we're lucky it might ... help some people to cope better with maths."
Scientists said last month they found that using electrodes to stimulate areas deep within the brain might be able to help patients with severe obsessive compulsive disorder who do not respond to other treatment.
For this study, 15 student volunteers aged 20 and 21 were taught symbols that represented different numerical values, and then timed to see how quickly and accurately they could complete a series of math puzzles based on those symbols.
The teaching took place over six days and each day the volunteers were given either a placebo or a one milliamp electrical stimulus from right to left, or vice versa, across the parietal lobe – a brain area important for processing math. The stimulus was administered for about 20 minutes each day, Mr. Kadosh said in a telephone interview.
"You can feel it a little bit, but only for the first 15 to 30 seconds or so," he said. "And it's not at all painful. It's just like a tingling sensation in your skull." He said none of the volunteers reported any side effects from the stimulation.
The results published in the journal Current Biology showed volunteers who were given the electrical stimulation from right to left parietal lobes performed best.
This group was re-tested six months after the training and the scientists found they maintained a high performance level.
Christopher Chambers of Cardiff University's School of Psychology, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were "intriguing" and could have far-reaching implications.
"The results of this study ... have exciting ramifications for the use of brain stimulation techniques in other domains," he said in an email comment.
"The ability to tweak activity in parts of the brain, turning it slightly 'up' or 'down' at will, opens the door to treating a range of psychiatric and neurological problems, like compulsive gambling or visual impairments following stroke."