After just five days of non-invasive brain stimulation and a bit of cognitive training, researchers at Oxford University were able to enhance people's high-level abilities, such as mental arithmetic and manual calculations. And remarkably, the effect lasts for months.
The discovery was made by scientists working at Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology, and it could lead to entirely new education strategies. But more immediately, it could also help people with learning disabilities or neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We contacted the lead researcher to learn more.
It’s called transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS) and it’s only been around for a few years. It works by enhancing the excitability of the brain, and it does so by applying random electrical noise to target regions of the cortex via stimulation electrodes placed on the surface of the scalp.
“tRNS has only emerged relatively recently, so how the technique influences the excitability of individual neurons is still somewhat of a mystery,” researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh tells io9. “On a more macroscopic level, it is thought that tRNS may increase neuronal firing synchronization within stimulated regions of the cortex.” And in fact, neuroimaging results suggests that tRNS increases the efficiency with which stimulated brain areas use their supplies of oxygen and nutrients.
What’s more, the technique is non-invasive, painless, and relatively cheap. You can get one from these people, as a matter of fact.
It’s also different from other similar stimulation techniques in two main ways.
“First, it is less perceptible than the more-common transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), so subjects are less aware they are being stimulated,” Cohen Kadosh tells io9. “Second, you can apply TRNS in a polarity-independent fashion, meaning there are no 'positive' or ‘negative’ electrodes to worry about.”
Cohen Kadosh and his team reasoned that tRNS can be used to enhance the functioning of brain regions that are involved in math learning and performance. And indeed, previous studies showed that it can improve working memory — a major benefit when doing math.
To that end, the researchers performed a study in which tRNS would be used to stimulate the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) — a key area involved in arithmetic. The team recruited 25 volunteers (some of which were put into a control, or “sham”, group) and applied the electrical signal to their scalps for 20 minutes.
In conjunction with this, the participants were trained on two types of cognitive tasks: calculations (which involved complex arithmetic tasks) and drills (math tasks that required the use of working memory).
This, along with the tRNS, went on for five consecutive days.
Once complete, subsequent tests showed that the tRNS and cognitive training enhanced the speed of both calculation and memory-recall-based arithmetic learning. But not only that, tests conducted six months later revealed long-lasting behavioral and physiological changes in the stimulated group.
“If experimental results continue in this positive direction, we hope that these simulation techniques will one-day be used in the clinic, classrooms and even home to help those who struggle with certain cognitive tasks,” Cohen Kadosh told us. “This could include anyone from a child falling behind in their math class to an elderly patient suffering from neurodegenerative disease.”
That said, Cohen Kadosh said it may be some time before we see these techniques transferred to the clinic and classroom — but he sees it as a realistic aim.
“Several socio-ethical, financial and scientific barriers need to be overcome before it can be achieved,” he says. “Nevertheless the current results open up a new line of study that will hopefully extend our findings into a larger and more diverse set of subjects, in more natural setting such as a classroom or study-group.”
Looking ahead, Cohen Kadosh sees an integration of neuroscience and education — a potent combination that he feels will help individuals reach their cognitive potential in math and other fields.
You can read the entire study in Current Biology: “Long-Term Enhancement of Brain Function and Cognition Using Cognitive Training and Brain Stimulation.”
Images: Michelangelus/Shutterstock, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Rogue Resolutions.