Electrical Brain Stimulation Can Help You Learn Math

Well, it's one way of getting better at math.

What if a painless zap to the brain could improve your ability to do math? Would you do it?

It may sound weird, but a new, small study of 25 people has shown that something like this may work. Researchers from the U.K. and Austria found that something called transcranial random noise stimulation helped people learn certain arithmetic faster. The effect still appeared when the researchers tested their study volunteers again six months later.

The stimulation required volunteers to get electrical stimulation through their scalps. They get bursts of electrical currents in random frequencies, which seems to make brain cells more excitable. For this study, they received stimulation over a part of the prefrontal cortex that’s important for arithmetic. The researchers gave 13 of their volunteers stimulation over five days, while they put the rest of their volunteers into the same scalp setup without actually running the stimulation.

After five days, those who got the stimulation learned arithmetic more quickly compared to those who hadn’t been stimulated. The speedier learning applied both to learning math facts, which didn’t require understanding, and to doing math calculations, which required people to understand the operations they performed. At the same time, measures of blood flow to the brain showed differences between the volunteers who received stimulation and the volunteers who didn’t.

Six months later, the researchers asked their volunteers to come into the lab again, without warning. Only 12 volunteers—six who had been stimulated, six who had not—agreed. The researchers tested those folks and found that the volunteers who received stimulation training still performed better on some tests and had improved blood flow to part of the brain that received stimulation.

The improved volunteers could even generalize their learning. They did well not only on math problems they had already seen, but also on problems that used the same principles, but weren’t exactly the same. Only one effect had faded away: All the volunteers performed about equally on memorizing math facts.

Of course, it will take a lot more than 25 people to prove this new brain stimulation technique truly works for a variety of people. Meanwhile, the researchers have an idea about why transcranial random noise stimulation works. It may help brain cells fire more simultaneously, according to Cell Press, which published the paper today in its journal, Current Biology.