Brain training and stimulation improves mental arithmetic ability

17 May 2013

NIRS imaging

With just a few days of non-harmful brain stimulation and brain training, scientists have improved people’s ability to manipulate numbers for up to six months.

In new research, scientists at the University of Oxford and UCL suggest that applying non-invasive stimulation, called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), to the brain can improve its function.

Roi Cohen Kadosh, of the University of Oxford, said: “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,”

Incredibly, the improvements held for a period of six months after training. The research was supported by the Wellcome Trust and is published in the journal Current Biology.

To measure what was happening in the brain during stimulation, the team used an optical brain imaging technique called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), which monitors the changes in brain blood volume and oxygen levels.

Results from the NIRS imaging suggested that enhanced efficiency in the blood flow between neurons correlated with the improved cognitive ability of participants. 

Near-infrared spectroscopy or NIRS is an optical technique that uses low light levels to measure non-invasively the distribution of oxygen and blood in the brain. NIRS describes the measurement of blood volume changes such as brain blood volume and oxygenation specifically associated with brain activation in response to a given stimulus.

Dr Ilias Tachtsidis, Head of the Multimodal Spectroscopy group in UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering, and an author of the study said: “There is a lot of interest of how this transcranial random noise stimulation works and for the first time through combination with our novel optical neuro-monitoring technique we have observed significant brain haemodynamic and oxygenation alterations in healthy people.

“We were very pleased that our optical neuro-monitoring results corroborate the fact that this type of stimulation might cause the brain to work more efficiently.”

TRNS also has the potential to help even more people. That’s because it has been shown to improve mental arithmetic—the ability to add, subtract, or multiply a string of numbers in your head, for example—not just new number learning. Mental arithmetic is a more complex and challenging task, which more than 20 percent of people struggle with.

Ultimately, Cohen Kadosh says, with better integration of neuroscience and education, this line of study could really help humans reach our cognitive potential in math and beyond. It might also be of particular help to those suffering with neurodegenerative illness, stroke, or learning difficulties.

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

With just a few days of non-harmful brain stimulation and brain training, scientists have improved people’s ability to manipulate numbers for up to six months.


Image: a healthy adult performs anagram tasks while scientists monitor the function of the brain using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS).


Links:
UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering
Wellcome Trust
Research in Current Biology