Administering high-frequency electrical noise to the brain can actually boost math skills up to six months later, according to a small study at the University of Oxford.

The finding was published in the journal Current Biology and outlines a technique that consists of placing electrodes on the scalp of the head and administering random electrical noise to stimulate parts of the brain – causing nerve cells to fire. During this study, the electrodes were placed on the head to aim at hitting regions of the brain known to be involved in doing math.

This technique is known as transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) and is painless, non-invasive, and inexpensive. The researchers developed the current study to examine whether TRNS given while performing the mental math tasks each day had an effect.

The researchers asked 51 Oxford students to complete two math tasks over a five-day time frame that analyzed their ability to conduct calculations in their head and learn math facts quicker by heart. There were 25 volunteers in the main experiment and 26 in the control experiment.

Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, who led the research, said:

‘We found that with just 5 days of TRNS-accompanied cognitive training, we were able to bring about long-lasting improvements in cognitive and brain functions. Our neuroimaging results suggested that TRNS increases the efficiency with which stimulated brain areas use their supplies of oxygen and nutrients.”

The study was small-scale and is not something that should be replicated at home, because of the possibility of harm. More research is needed to determine how this method may be used in the future.

Dr. Cohen Kadosh believes the current findings are a stepping stone to a line of research to determine whether the results can be repeated in larger and more diverse groups of people. He explains:

“If experimental results continue in this positive direction, we hope that these painless, safe and cheap non-invasive stimulation techniques will one-day be used in the clinic, classrooms and even home to help those who struggle with certain cognitive tasks. This could include anyone from a child falling behind in his/her maths class to an elderly patient suffering from neurodegenerative disease.”

How TRNS stimulates the firing of individual neurons in the brain is still a mystery. Some believe that TRNS boosts the synchronization in firing of neurons in the area of the brain that receives the stimulation.

To date, studies have shown TRNS to be harmless physically. This technique is part of a category known as transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) that has been proven to positively affect a wide range of cognitive activities. The authors are hopeful for the outlook of TRNS.

The Oxford group has also previously revealed an additional type of brain stimulation known as TDCS, which may make people more efficient at learning and processing new numerical symbols. However, there may be some side effects regarding other cognitive functions with this method.

In the current study, the investigators did not see negative aspects of TRNS in other non-mathematical tasks. TRNS did not impact performance positively or negatively in these tasks.

Dr. Cohen Kadosh concludes, ‘It is very important that future work in this field makes an effort to identify any downsides of TES, and ensure that the boosting of one cognitive ability does not come at the expense of another.”

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald