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Scientists Reveal Shock to the Brain Improves Math Ability: How to Pass Your Algebra Test

First Posted: May 17, 2013 12:12 PM EDT

Have you ever had trouble with math? Apparently, you just need to shock your brain. Researchers have discovered that a harmless form of brain stimulation applied to an area known to be important for math ability can actually improve a person's ability to perform calculations.

In the past, researchers have shown that brain stimulation could make people better at learning and processing new numbers. Yet in this case, the scientists decided to use a different form of stimulation during the course of their study. In order to actually stimulate the brain, the researchers used transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS). This process essentially "shocks" the brain with high frequency electrical noise. No one exactly knows how this relatively new method works, but it does seem to allow the brain to work more efficiently by making neurons fire more synchronously. Some researchers believe that it may work by preventing neurophysiological homeostatic mechanisms that govern ion channel conductance from rebalancing the changes induced by prolonged practice on a perceptual learning task.

"With just five days of cognitive training and noninvasive, painless brain stimulation, we were able to bring about long-lasting improvements in cognitive and brain functions," said Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford in a news release.

The results of TRNS were astounding. The researchers found that the improvements held for a period of six months after training--that's sure to help you pass your math exam.

Yet this technique may not just have implications for how well you do with algebra; it may also allow researchers to help people that struggle with certain cognitive skills. TRNS actually improves mental arithmetic, which involves the ability to add, subtract or multiply a string of numbers in your head. This type of mental arithmetic is more complex and challenging than new number learning, and 20 percent of people struggle with it.

"Maths is a highly complex cognitive faculty that is based on a myriad of different abilities," said Kadosh. "If we can enhance mathematics, therefore, there is a good chance that we will be able to enhance simpler cognitive functions."

Ultimately, the new research could potentially help people reach their cognitive potential in math and beyond. It could also help this suffering from neurodegenerative illness, stroke or learning difficulties.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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