Exciting the brain could be key to boosting maths learning

A recent study suggests that electrical noise stimulation applied to a specific brain region can enhance mathematical learning, particularly in individuals who struggle with the subject.

This innovative research, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Surrey and Oxford, in collaboration with Loughborough University and Radboud University in The Netherlands, delved into the impact of neurostimulation on the learning process, shedding light on the neurophysiological changes it induces and its overall effect on learning outcomes.

The study’s findings revealed that electrical noise stimulation, when directed at the frontal part of the brain, had a positive impact on the mathematical abilities of individuals who initially exhibited lower levels of enthusiasm or engagement with mathematics. Conversely, no significant improvement in mathematical proficiency was observed in participants who displayed a high level of initial interest in mathematics or in the placebo groups. The researchers propose that electrical noise stimulation influences sodium channels within the brain, disrupting neuronal cell membrane function and subsequently heightening cortical excitability.

Leading this groundbreaking project, Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey, explained the significance of their work: “Learning is key to everything we do in life – from developing new skills, such as driving a car, to learning how to code. Our brains are constantly absorbing and acquiring new knowledge. Previously, we have shown that a person’s ability to learn is associated with neuronal excitation in their brains. What we wanted to discover in this case is if our novel stimulation protocol could boost, in other words excite, this activity and improve mathematical skills.”

The study involved 102 participants who underwent assessments of their mathematical skills through a series of multiplication problems. Subsequently, participants were divided into four groups: a learning group exposed to high-frequency random electrical noise stimulation, an overlearning group in which participants practiced multiplication beyond the point of mastery with high-frequency random electrical noise stimulation. The remaining two groups were learning and overlearning groups exposed to a sham (placebo) condition, simulating the experience of real stimulation without significant electrical currents. EEG recordings were taken at the beginning and end of the stimulation to monitor brain activity.

Dr. Nienke van Bueren from Radboud University, who supervised this work under the guidance of Professor Cohen Kadosh, noted, “These findings highlight that individuals with lower brain excitability may be more receptive to noise stimulation, leading to enhanced learning outcomes, while those with high brain excitability might not experience the same benefits in their mathematical abilities.”

Professor Cohen Kadosh emphasized the significance of their discovery: “What we have found is how this promising neurostimulation works and under which conditions the stimulation protocol is most effective. This discovery could not only pave the way for a more tailored approach in a person’s learning journey but also shed light on the optimal timing and duration of its application.”

The study detailing these findings was published in PL0S Biology.

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