If the thought of math makes you break out in a cold sweat, a solution to your phobia may soon be at hand.
Scientists say they have performed an experiment that demonstrates they can boost a person's ability to learn math skills by applying an electrical current to the brain.
"I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings," said Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford in Britain.
The researchers used transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, in which electrodes attached to the scalp emit a weak current. Apparently, the electrical stimulation can alter the activity level of brain neurons. In this case, the current was directed at the parietal lobe, a part of the brain that is crucial for numerical understanding.
The 15 study participants, who had normal math abilities, were asked to learn a series of artificial numbers - new symbols representing different magnitudes. Some participants received brain stimulation during six days of training sessions. Others got a placebo treatment that lacked the full current. All of them were put through a series of tests to measure their ability to work with the new symbols in a mathematical manner.
The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, revealed that stimulation improved the ability to learn the new numerical system, and the acquired skills still existed when the subjects were retested six months later.
"Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but if we're successful it might be able to help some people cope better with maths," said Dr. Cohen Kadosh.
His research team now plans to test the technique on people with severe numerical disabilities, or dyscalculia - such as those who can't even count change at the supermarket. It's hoped that teaching math skills while the current is applied to the brain will have a lasting effect and help the numerically challenged function better in the world. The treatment may also aid those who have lost their number skills as a result of strokes or degenerative diseases.
For people who have a really hard time doing math, "their brain is not functioning properly" in the area that governs this ability, explained Dr. Cohen Kadosh. "They have abnormalities in the anatomy ... and they have lower activation" in part of the brain.
Using electrical current to simulate the brain, he said, "is just like giving the neurons an energy drink so they are able to perform much better."
But if further research confirms the treatment can enhance math performance, should it be used to help average students get top grades - and not just applied to those with serious disabilities?
Dr. Cohen Kadosh sidesteps that question. "This is something that might be considered an ethical issue - I think it has to be decided by society."