Archive for the ‘Roi Cohen Kadosh’ Category

MATH

In a lab in Oxford University’s experimental psychology department, researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh is testing an intriguing treatment: He is sending low-dose electric current through the brains of adults and children as young as 8 to make them better at math.

A relatively new brain-stimulation technique called transcranial electrical stimulation may help people learn and improve their understanding of math concepts.

The electrodes are placed in a tightly fitted cap and worn around the head. The device, run off a 9-volt battery commonly used in smoke detectors, induces only a gentle current and can be targeted to specific areas of the brain or applied generally. The mild current reduces the risk of side effects, which has opened up possibilities about using it, even in individuals without a disorder, as a general cognitive enhancer. Scientists also are investigating its use to treat mood disorders and other conditions.

Dr. Cohen Kadosh’s pioneering work on learning enhancement and brain stimulation is one example of the long journey faced by scientists studying brain-stimulation and cognitive-stimulation techniques. Like other researchers in the community, he has dealt with public concerns about safety and side effects, plus skepticism from other scientists about whether these findings would hold in the wider population.

There are also ethical questions about the technique. If it truly works to enhance cognitive performance, should it be accessible to anyone who can afford to buy the device—which already is available for sale in the U.S.? Should parents be able to perform such stimulation on their kids without monitoring?

“It’s early days but that hasn’t stopped some companies from selling the device and marketing it as a learning tool,” Dr. Cohen Kadosh says. “Be very careful.”

The idea of using electric current to treat the brain of various diseases has a long and fraught history, perhaps most notably with what was called electroshock therapy, developed in 1938 to treat severe mental illness and often portrayed as a medieval treatment that rendered people zombielike in movies such as “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Electroconvulsive therapy has improved dramatically over the years and is considered appropriate for use against types of major depression that don’t respond to other treatments, as well as other related, severe mood states.

A number of new brain-stimulation techniques have been developed, including deep brain stimulation, which acts like a pacemaker for the brain. With DBS, electrodes are implanted into the brain and, though a battery pack in the chest, stimulate neurons continuously. DBS devices have been approved by U.S. regulators to treat tremors in Parkinson’s disease and continue to be studied as possible treatments for chronic pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Transcranial electrical stimulation, or tES, is one of the newest brain stimulation techniques. Unlike DBS, it is noninvasive.

If the technique continues to show promise, “this type of method may have a chance to be the new drug of the 21st century,” says Dr. Cohen Kadosh.

The 37-year-old father of two completed graduate school at Ben-Gurion University in Israel before coming to London to do postdoctoral work with Vincent Walsh at University College London. Now, sitting in a small, tidy office with a model brain on a shelf, the senior research fellow at Oxford speaks with cautious enthusiasm about brain stimulation and its potential to help children with math difficulties.

Up to 6% of the population is estimated to have a math-learning disability called developmental dyscalculia, similar to dyslexia but with numerals instead of letters. Many more people say they find math difficult. People with developmental dyscalculia also may have trouble with daily tasks, such as remembering phone numbers and understanding bills.

Whether transcranial electrical stimulation proves to be a useful cognitive enhancer remains to be seen. Dr. Cohen Kadosh first thought about the possibility as a university student in Israel, where he conducted an experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a tool that employs magnetic coils to induce a more powerful electrical current.

He found that he could temporarily turn off regions of the brain known to be important for cognitive skills. When the parietal lobe of the brain was stimulated using that technique, he found that the basic arithmetic skills of doctoral students who were normally very good with numbers were reduced to a level similar to those with developmental dyscalculia.

That led to his next inquiry: If current could turn off regions of the brain making people temporarily math-challenged, could a different type of stimulation improve math performance? Cognitive training helps to some extent in some individuals with math difficulties. Dr. Cohen Kadosh wondered if such learning could be improved if the brain was stimulated at the same time.

But transcranial magnetic stimulation wasn’t the right tool because the current induced was too strong. Dr. Cohen Kadosh puzzled over what type of stimulation would be appropriate until a colleague who had worked with researchers in Germany returned and told him about tES, at the time a new technique. Dr. Cohen Kadosh decided tES was the way to go.

His group has since conducted a series of studies suggesting that tES appears helpful improving learning speed on various math tasks in adults who don’t have trouble in math. Now they’ve found preliminary evidence for those who struggle in math, too.

Participants typically come for 30-minute stimulation-and-training sessions daily for a week. His team is now starting to study children between 8 and 10 who receive twice-weekly training and stimulation for a month. Studies of tES, including the ones conducted by Dr. Cohen Kadosh, tend to have small sample sizes of up to several dozen participants; replication of the findings by other researchers is important.

In a small, toasty room, participants, often Oxford students, sit in front of a computer screen and complete hundreds of trials in which they learn to associate numerical values with abstract, nonnumerical symbols, figuring out which symbols are “greater” than others, in the way that people learn to know that three is greater than two.

When neurons fire, they transfer information, which could facilitate learning. The tES technique appears to work by lowering the threshold neurons need to reach before they fire, studies have shown. In addition, the stimulation appears to cause changes in neurochemicals involved in learning and memory.

However, the results so far in the field appear to differ significantly by individual. Stimulating the wrong brain region or at too high or long a current has been known to show an inhibiting effect on learning. The young and elderly, for instance, respond exactly the opposite way to the same current in the same location, Dr. Cohen Kadosh says.

He and a colleague published a paper in January in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, in which they found that one individual with developmental dyscalculia improved her performance significantly while the other study subject didn’t.

What is clear is that anyone trying the treatment would need to train as well as to stimulate the brain. Otherwise “it’s like taking steroids but sitting on a couch,” says Dr. Cohen Kadosh.

Dr. Cohen Kadosh and Beatrix Krause, a graduate student in the lab, have been examining individual differences in response. Whether a room is dark or well-lighted, if a person smokes and even where women are in their menstrual cycle can affect the brain’s response to electrical stimulation, studies have found.

Results from his lab and others have shown that even if stimulation is stopped, those who benefited are going to maintain a higher performance level than those who weren’t stimulated, up to a year afterward. If there isn’t any follow-up training, everyone’s performance declines over time, but the stimulated group still performs better than the non-stimulated group. It remains to be seen whether reintroducing stimulation would then improve learning again, Dr. Cohen Kadosh says.

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sn-math

by Emily Underwood
ScienceNOW

If you are one of the 20% of healthy adults who struggle with basic arithmetic, simple tasks like splitting the dinner bill can be excruciating. Now, a new study suggests that a gentle, painless electrical current applied to the brain can boost math performance for up to 6 months. Researchers don’t fully understand how it works, however, and there could be side effects.

The idea of using electrical current to alter brain activity is nothing new—electroshock therapy, which induces seizures for therapeutic effect, is probably the best known and most dramatic example. In recent years, however, a slew of studies has shown that much milder electrical stimulation applied to targeted regions of the brain can dramatically accelerate learning in a wide range of tasks, from marksmanship to speech rehabilitation after stroke.

In 2010, cognitive neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom showed that, when combined with training, electrical brain stimulation can make people better at very basic numerical tasks, such as judging which of two quantities is larger. However, it wasn’t clear how those basic numerical skills would translate to real-world math ability.

To answer that question, Cohen Kadosh recruited 25 volunteers to practice math while receiving either real or “sham” brain stimulation. Two sponge-covered electrodes, fixed to either side of the forehead with a stretchy athletic band, targeted an area of the prefrontal cortex considered key to arithmetic processing, says Jacqueline Thompson, a Ph.D. student in Cohen Kadosh’s lab and a co-author on the study. The electrical current slowly ramped up to about 1 milliamp—a tiny fraction of the voltage of an AA battery—then randomly fluctuated between high and low values. For the sham group, the researchers simulated the initial sensation of the increase by releasing a small amount of current, then turned it off.

For roughly 20 minutes per day over 5 days, the participants memorized arbitrary mathematical “facts,” such as 4#10 = 23, then performed a more sophisticated task requiring multiple steps of arithmetic, also based on memorized symbols. A squiggle, for example, might mean “add 2,” or “subtract 1.” This is the first time that brain stimulation has been applied to improving such complex math skills, says neuroethicist Peter Reiner of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada, who wasn’t involved in the research.

The researchers also used a brain imaging technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to measure how efficiently the participants’ brains were working as they performed the tasks.

Although the two groups performed at the same level on the first day, over the next 4 days people receiving brain stimulation along with training learned to do the tasks two to five times faster than people receiving a sham treatment, the authors reported in Current Biology. Six months later, the researchers called the participants back and found that people who had received brain stimulation were still roughly 30% faster at the same types of mathematical challenges. The targeted brain region also showed more efficient activity, Thompson says.

The fact that only participants who received electrical stimulation and practiced math showed lasting physiological changes in their brains suggests that experience is required to seal in the effects of stimulation, says Michael Weisend, a neuroscientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who wasn’t involved with the study. That’s valuable information for people who hope to get benefits from stimulation alone, he says. “It’s not going to be a magic bullet.”

Although it’s not clear how the technique works, Thompson says, one hypothesis is that the current helps synchronize neuron firing, enabling the brain to work more efficiently. Scientists also don’t know if negative or unintended effects might result. Although no side effects of brain stimulation have yet been reported, “it’s impossible to say with any certainty” that there aren’t any, Thompson says.

“Math is only one of dozens of skills in which this could be used,” Reiner says, adding that it’s “not unreasonable” to imagine that this and similar stimulation techniques could replace the use of pills for cognitive enhancement.

In the future, the researchers hope to include groups that often struggle with math, such as people with neurodegenerative disorders and a condition called developmental dyscalculia. As long as further testing shows that the technique is safe and effective, children in schools could also receive brain stimulation along with their lessons, Thompson says. But there’s “a long way to go,” before the method is ready for schools, she says. In the meantime, she adds, “We strongly caution you not to try this at home, no matter how tempted you may be to slap a battery on your kid’s head.”

http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/05/trouble-with-math-maybe-you-shou.html?ref=hp