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University of Oxford scientists have discovered a method to improve a person’s math abilities without affecting other cognitive functions. How? By applying a barely perceptible electric current to the brain.

Published online recently in journal Current Biology, the findings describe using a “non-invasive method” known as transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The scientists pass a mild electric current (barely enough to light a lightbulb) through the skull into the brain’s parietal lobe, where numbers are processed. The effect lasts about six months.

“I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks,” says Roi Cohen Kadosh, a scientist at the University of Oxford involved in the research. “Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but if we’re successful, it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.”

The research could help treat the nearly 20% of the population with moderate to severe dyscalculia (math disability), and could probably help students in other subjects as well.

In the research, patients were asked to learn new symbols to represent numbers, then, while they were on TDCS, they were asked to organise the numbers. Participants whose brains were being stimulated demonstrated an improved ability to perform the task. Interestingly, when tested again six months later, they performed just as well.

Oxford scientists say the next trials will involve patients who have lower-than-average math skills. Past research using TDCS has shown that in healthy volunteers the technique can improve a subject’s ability to generate a list of words. Past and ongoing studies have also explored its potential to treat depression, modify pain perception, and improve working memory.