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Can electricity boost maths skills?

Fergus Walsh | 22:49 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

A shocking idea or a spark of genius? Scientists in Oxford say applying an electrical current across the brain may be able to enhance your mathematical abilities.

The amount of electricity is tiny - one thousandth of an amp. The electrodes are placed at the back of the head over the parietal lobe.
This is an area of the brain which is a crucial in acquiring mathematical skills. Those with dyscalculia, sometimes called maths dyslexia, often have abnormal function of the parietal lobe.

The researchers found that if the current flowed from the right of the brain to the left, then mathematical ability was enhanced. If it was reversed then it impeded learning, so that the volunteers scored no better in puzzles than a six year old.

This was a very small study with just 15 volunteers who spent many hours solving mathematical puzzles. Much bigger and more detailed research is required before any robust claims can be made about the electrical stimulation and maths ability.

Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh a cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford University kindly allowed me to take the device onto the streets of the city this lunchtime. I interviewed an entirely unscientific handful of students. I was surprised at how many were keen to give it a go, although the experiments have to be done under strictly controlled conditions in the laboratory.

One of my first questions for the scientists regarded left handedness. As a left hander I wanted to know if the current needs to flow the opposite way in order to enhance maths ability. Dr Cohen Kadosh and his postgraduate researcher are also left handed "We excluded left handers from the trial", said Dr Cohen Kadosh, "in order to get rid of a variable which could have affected the results". No doubt in future trials left handers will get their chance.

I was allowed to try out the device in the lab. I had to put on a rather natty black sports headband - the kind that John McEnroe used to wear at Wimbledon. This was purely to hold the electrodes in place. When the current was switched on I am afraid I did not feel a sudden rush of genius. In fact, I did not feel anything at all. Not a jot, not a spark, not even a mild tingling sensation. Proof, some will say, that there is nothing much between my ears.


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