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Does Electrical Brain Stimulation Work?

A few years ago in the Brainpower Newsletter I reported on a study done at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. More than 100 volunteers had to recall as many words that begin with a particular letter as possible. When a 2-milliamp current (less than a small battery) was passed through electrodes on the volunteers' foreheads, the volunteers came up with an average of 20 percent more words.

Other than some irritation from the electrodes, no other side effects were noted from this electrical brain stimulation. It wasn't clear why this works, but scientists suspected that the current allowed cells in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with verbal memory, to transmit signals more easily. Using electricity to modify the brain isn't all that new, by the way. Historians think that almost two thousand years ago Greek physicians had patients apply a live torpedo fish, which is a type of electric ray, to the forehead as a cure for headaches.

Now, as recently reported by the Reuter's new's service (November 2010), a new study by neuroscientists at Britain's Oxford University has found that electrical brain stimulation can enhance a person's maths ability. Amazingly, the improved abilities were not limited to the time the current was on. In fact, subjects were found to have better math skills six months later.

For the study, volunteers (young adults) memorized symbols that represented different numerical values. Then they had to do a series of math puzzles based on the symbols. Speed and accuracy were measured. During each of the six days of the tests, subjects had either a placebo or electrical stimulation across the parietal lobe for 20 minutes. This is an area of the brain that is important for doing mathematical work.

A tingling sensation was noticed by those who received the electric brain stimulation, and that was generally felt for only the first 20 seconds or so. No other side effects were noted (but don't try this on your own). Only a one milliamp electrical stimulus was used in this study. Interestingly, those who had the current passed from right to left parietal lobes had the biggest boost in performance (some had the current passed from left to right).

After a follow up six months later - which showed that the group which received the electrical brain stimulation still did better in the math tests - the study was reported in the journal Current Biology. Other scientists have suggested that being able to stimulate certain parts of the brain in this way might be useful for treating a range of psychiatric and neurological problems ranging from visual impairments following stroke to compulsive gambling.

Since that study, other scientists found that using electrodes to electrically stimulate areas deep within the brain may help patients with severe obsessive compulsive disorder, especially those who do not respond to other treatments. If there are more studies on brain stimulation - as I'm sure there will be - I'll report on them in the Brainpower Newsletter and on this site.

Source: Electric brain stimulation can improve math skills.

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