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Want to be a math whiz? Try a touch of electric shock

Linda Carroll writes: The electricity generated by a 9-volt battery might be all there is between you and the mathematical brilliance of a Newton or an Einstein.

OK, we can’t guarantee you’ll be that smart, but, amazingly, British scientists have now shown that low voltage current applied to the right part of the scalp can spark changes that boost the brain’s math abilities. What's more, that mild jolt can lock in your improved mathematical prowess for as long as six months, according to new research published in this month’s issue of Current Biology.

The findings come too late for those of us who already suffered through middle school algebra, but maybe future generations will benefit.

The researchers, led by Roi Cohen Kadosh from the University of Oxford, suspected that a little electricity directed at the right parietal lobe – a brain region at the top of the head and known to play a role in numerical calculations – might juice up a person’s math ability.

To test that theory, Kadosh and his colleagues rounded up some volunteers and equipped some with transcranial direct current stimulation devices that were positioned on the scalp over the right parietal lobe. Another group of volunteers served as a control group and got no stimulation.

All the volunteers were then taught some abstract math, which involved no numbers. They were introduced to a set of symbols, shown some rules about the symbols and then tested.

As it turns out, electrical stimulation helped people learn the math a lot better -- and faster.

And there was some more good news: the gain comes with no pain. The sensation sparked by the device is merely a mild tingling, says Dr. Ian Cook, an expert unaffiliated with the new study and associate director of the Laboratory for Brain, Behavior and Pharmacology at UCLA. The feeling is something akin to what you’d feel if you put your tongue on a 9-volt battery (not that we recommend you do that).

Math isn’t the only brain function that can be boosted with a little electricity, says Dr. Roy Hamilton, co-director of the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation at the University of Pennsylvania. Set the device over a different part of the brain and you get enhanced language abilities, he explains.

So, will kids one day head off for school with a battery like device strapped to their heads that they’ll move from one spot to another as they go from class to class?

“I think that’s still in the range of science fiction,” says Cook. “But it’s certainly in the range of possibility.”

In the meantime, though you might be tempted to run a similar experiment on your own – with a battery and a wet sponge – experts caution against it. “This is in the ‘Kids, don’t try this at home,’ category,” says Cook. “There is the potential to injure the brain.”