Should Students Who Are Bad at Math Receive Therapeutic Electro-Shock Treatments?

Students who had their brains zapped solved math questions 27 percent faster than those who did not

Photo: akirsa

Math haters: If slight electric shocks to your brain would improve your ability to crunch numbers, would you do it? Alternatively, would you sign your child up to undergo this treatment if it meant better grades in algebra class? If new research published in Current Biology pans out, those of us who are not mathematically gifted may someday face these questions. The Guardian reports:

Psychologists at Oxford University found that students scored higher on mental arithmetic tasks after a five-day course of brain stimulation.

If future studies prove that it works – and is safe – the cheap and non-invasive procedure might be used routinely to boost the cognitive power of those who fall behind in maths, the scientists said. Researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh zapped students’ brains with a technique called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) while they performed simple calculations, or tried to remember mathematical facts by rote learning.

Twenty-five students received these “gentle” brain shocks, and 26 served as control students, though they believed they were receiving treatment, the Guardian continues. Those who received the real treatment completed math questions 27 percent faster than those who received the placebo, the researchers reported in their paper.

ScienceNOW points out that, while this may sound extreme, electroshock treatment finds use in a range of medical applications:

The idea of using electrical current to alter brain activity is nothing new—electroshock therapy, which induces seizures for therapeutic effect, is probably the best known and most dramatic example. In recent years, however, a slew of studies has shown that much milder electrical stimulation applied to targeted regions of the brain can dramatically accelerate learning in a wide range of tasks, from marksmanship to speech rehabilitation after stroke.

In this latest study, the researchers additionally claimed that at least six of the students who returned to the lab for further testing still enjoyed the mathematical benefits of their treatment six months after it was administered. Other researchers told the Guardian, however, that six is a very small sample number so should not be counted as definitive evidence, so more thorough follow-ups will be needed to confirm that observation.

Even though the amount of electricity used in this study—1 milliamp, just a fraction of the voltage of an AA battery—is very small, ScienceNOW writes, there could be unintended side effects, so researchers discourage overenthusiastic parents from trying the technique at home.

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