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Shock Your Brain To Out-Smart Mathematics!
Amazed by the title?? Well, you must be! But, this is true indeed as per the recent research carried out by a group of scientists from the University of Oxford (UK), University College London (UK) and Innsbruck Medical University (Austria), published in the 'Current Biology' on 16 May 2013! (Yes!, this is that recent!). The research has highlighted the utility of non-invasive noise stimulation of brain to enhance the high level cognitive functioning of the brain as well as the specific functioning of the brain (viz. solving complex arithematics!).

[Image: What-can-binaural-beats-be-used-for.jpg]
Image free to use

Cognitive functioning of the brain deals with processing of thoughts, memory and speech. And, until this very research, non-invasive brain stimulations were known to enhance the basic cognitive/behavioral responses only. This group utilized a specific mode of stimulating the brain at a specific region for improving the mathematical learning of the targets. Transcranial Random Noise Stimulation (TRNS) was the mode targeted at bilateral Dorso Lateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) region of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is known for it's role in arithematic understanding and analysis.

TRNS sends random pulses of electric current to the pre-frontal cortex through the electrodes attached to the scalp. In order to monitor the effect of TRNS, pre-frontal hemodynamic (blood movement) responses in the brain are monitored by coupling TRNS to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), which indexes the level of brain activity in terms of the Oxi-haemoglobin rich blood supply to the brain. Following is the original photograph of the set-up, obtained from the open-access paper available at Science-Direct

(Link to Paper):
[Image: image.png]

Earlier in 2010, Cohen Kadosh, the member of this team from University of Oxford had come up with Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (TDCS) as a way to enhance memory and learning power of the volunteers involved in his research. His method aimed at neural activation in particular regions of the brain with parallel silencing of others, by continously passing current between electrodes installed at different parts of the scalp. The speculations on the safety of this approach of continuously passing current to the brain were obvious and expected! Cohen thus worked on making the approach more specific and effective, and the team came-up with TRNS.

In this research, 25 volunteers from University of Oxford were chosen and divided in two groups: TRNS and Control. The TRNS group received over 20 min of "electric shock!" (don't take it otherwise, it was random pulses of DC, not sheer shocks!), while the control received 5 seconds shock period. Both the groups were given training on solving a particular type of complicated arithematic problem(s), which continued for 5 days. TRNS group turned out to be a very fast learner as compared to the control group (called 'Sham' in paper).
In order to check the long-term neuroplastic effects, the volunteers were surprise called after 6 months and asked to solve the similar mathematical problem(s). The TRNS group again turned out to be the faster and accurate one, when compared to Sham. The findings were supported by the NIRS data, which exhibited high activity of pre-frontal cortical region of brain in TRNS group both during the active study and after 6 months!

Apart from the deep-level training to both the groups on a particular arithematic problem(s), a shallow training was also given on another kind of problem. TRNS group though performed well during the active period of the study, it couldn't perform well after 6months on the shallow trained task. This highlights the fact that, TRNS alone doesn't makes the cognitive functioning "high-level/extra-ordinary", but it needs to be coupled with good/deep training regime for long-term effects, which would be better than normal-individuals or non-TRNS people. Apart from this, the small size of the target population (only 25 volunteers), makes the certainty of consistent out-come quite speculative yet-again. Validation of the findings through the test on bigger target groups would be more reliable.

Nevertheless, the unique research highlights the possibility of an altogether different way of enhancing cognitive-functioning among the people. Apart from helping the people with neuro-degenerative diseases, it can help the maths-scared pupils to enhance their grasp over the subject! Cohen aims at extending his research to a new set of students, who are not from the elite universities like Oxford, but from the rather less-pronounced institutes, which might waive off the possibility of default superior cognition. The findings till date are no-doubt promising, and let's hope, very soon we may find a machine to make us learn mathematics "very fast!"

References/Suggested Reads:
Albert Snowball, Ilias Tachtsidis, Tudor Popescu, Jacqueline Thompson, Margarete Delazer, Laura Zamarian, Tingting Zhu, Cohen Kadosh.Long-Term Enhancement of Brain Function and Cognition Using Cognitive Training and Brain Stimulation. Current Biology, 16 May 2013

Cohen Kadosh, R., Soskic, S., Iuculano, T., Kanai, R. & Walsh, V. Curr. Biol. 20, 2016–2020 (2010)
Sunil Nagpal
MS(Research) Scholar, IIT Delhi (Alumnus)
Advisor for the Biotech Students portal (
Computational Researcher in BioSciences at a leading MNC

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A similar study was conducted by Anna Fertonani of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section and Biomedical Sciences and Biotechnologies of Brescia, Italy in October 2011.

They enrolled 99 subjects for transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) sessions which consisted of alternating currents of 1.5mA intensity given at random frequencies between the range of 0.1 to 100 Hz. This is for the purpose of low-frequency stimulation. For high frequency, the range was between 100-640 Hz. For women included in the study, they were tested during a point where their cortical excitability is closely similar to that of males, which is during their follicular menstrual phase.

The area of stimulation was over the individual’s vertex or occipital lobe for control stimulation conditions, where a visual orientation discrimination task was also used to test their performance. These subjects were to interpret whether the given stimuli were tilted clockwise or counterclockwise.

When the results came out, they showed that those who underwent high frequency random electrical stimulation performed more consistently after 5 successive blocks of the task, compared to those who underwent any kind of low frequency random stimulation.

The subjects had no prior knowledge and even had difficulty guessing what kind of stimulation was given to them, whether actual or placebo. So explicit perception was for them ruled out.

There were several aftereffects of the direct current stimulation such as itching, burning feeling, and a metallic taste. However, these effects did not affect the performance of the subjects.

Fertonani et al explained that the results turned out as such because it was found out that repeated high frequency random stimulation supports temporal summation of neuronal activity, while anodal direct current stimulation does a homeostatic re-regulation of ion channel conductivity which actually ultimately reduces neuronal excitability.

The researchers were aware that several factors can affect the results. These could be the stimulation parameters used, placement of reference electrodes, and the cytoarchitectural features of areas undergoing the stimulation.

It is good to know that not all electrical brain stimulation types can increase a person’s mental performance. I hope to see more studies like these!
Lyka Candelario, RN
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