Math Skills Could Be Improved By Electric Jolts To Brain, According To Pioneering Oxford University Research

Interesting news out of Oxford University: Researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh has found that mild electric jolts to the brain can help improve the math abilities in both adults and children. It's called transcranial electrical stimulation, a technique profiled in the Wall Street Journal this week, and Dr. Cohen Kadosh's groundbreaking research into the field has stirred hopes of new techniques to help brain stimulation and function.

During a student experiment, Kadosh discovered that he could use electricity to temporarily turn off parts of the brain critical to specific cognitive skills. He did this by means of transcranial magnetic stimulation, which produces a stronger current than the one he's now using experimentally. Kadosh found he was able to take doctoral students normally very accomplished in math, and induce them to struggle at performing the math tasks they usually breezed through.

For Kadosh, this begged the question: Could the effect go the other direction? Would it be possible to improve cognitive function, specifically one's ability to comprehend and perform math, through the use of an electric current?

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Maybe. The central effect of Kadosh's techniques seems to be easing the way which neurons fire to facilitate learning and comprehension. Basically, by running the low-level current through a brain region associated with a particular type of learning, the neurons receive a base level of stimulation, allowing them to fire more easily.

The use of electricity in mental health isn't a new or novel concept: it has practical applications in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is the far more refined modern application of what was once called electroshock therapy. Nowadays, it's used for extreme cases of depression and administered under anesthetic.

Kadosh has found that the appropriate charge level varies from person to person. Too high — or too low — and the function that's trying to be stimulated can actually be inhibited. Additionally, what level of current is appropriate can vary based on age.

This is one of the sources of the doctor's caution and skepticism — he acknowledges that it's to early to be certain, and advised U.S. companies already selling the the device to "be very careful." But if all goes well, Kadosh believes, "this type of method may have a chance to be the new drug of the 21st century."

Well, there goes your chance to ever say again, "Oh, I'm just not a math person..."

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