Could you someday zap your way to a smarter brain? Preliminary new research suggests that it's a possibility: Scientists report that they were able to improve the math-calculation skills of college students by buzzing their brains with doses of random high-frequency noise.
But don't go searching for a brain zapper at Walmart just yet. It's not clear why "transcranial random noise stimulation" might boost thinking skills, and the necessary equipment isn't sitting on the shelves at your local hardware store. The treatment is considered to be harmless but has only been studied for a few years, and the study findings aren't definitive.
For now, though, the results of the new study are promising, said author Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, in England.
"We can enhance one of the most complicated high-level cognitive [mental] functions and improve brain response after just five days of training, with a long-lasting effect six months later."
Scientists have only been studying transcranial random noise stimulation for about five years, Cohen Kadosh said. Researchers use the technique to stimulate the brain's cortex by putting electrodes on the scalp and delivering random bits of electrical noise.
"It is non-invasive, painless -- the level of current is generated by home batteries, and is very low -- and relatively cheap," he said.
Transcranial random noise stimulation is considered to be harmless, and several studies haven't mentioned any adverse effects in those who have been zapped. Researchers are interested in one possible positive effect, though: changes in how the brain processes things.
"The brain is working on electricity, and in some cases poor behavior and cognitive [thinking] abilities appear when there's less activation of regions that are otherwise active," Cohen Kadosh said. "We thought that if we can make it easier for neurons to fire, it will allow an improved performance."
In the study, appearing May 16 in the journal Current Biology, researchers recruited 51 Oxford students and gave them five days of training and testing as they performed arithmetic tasks. The tasks tested their ability to remember math facts (like 4 x 8 = 32) and make calculations (like 32 - 17 + 5 = 20), Cohen Kadosh said.
Some of the participants received transcranial random noise stimulation when they performed the math tasks. Those participants were two to five times better at learning things, he said. And, six months after the stimulation, they were 28 percent better at making calculations than the other participants.
Scientists aren't sure why the stimulation treatment may boost learning and thinking, but Cohen Kadosh said it may have something to do with activating neurons in the brain.
Why might brain-zapping be a good thing?
"We all want to improve our learning and to make it faster if possible, and we also want to help those who have problems in learning" due to disease, developmental problems or aging, he said. Also, "around 20 percent of the population finds math challenging."
However, don't try this at home, advised Dr. Colleen Loo, a brain researcher and professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who called the research "promising."
"If the electrodes are not correctly applied, it could cause scalp burns," Loo said. "Also, the exact placement of the positive and negative electrodes is essential, otherwise you could create quite different brain effects, including negative effects. There is still a lot more we need to know about this technology."
"There is a way to go, but this shows that it is feasible to improve human cognition and brain function in a long-lasting fashion," Cohen Kadosh said, "and this will hopefully trigger further research that will have more validity."