The results of the tests showed that the brain stimulation improved the participants' ability to learn the new numbers, and those that improvements lasted for six months. Control tests showed that the effect was specific to the learned symbols and did not affect other cognitive functions.
One American researcher said the findings were encouraging, but a lot more study is needed.
"Like many good studies, it opens a raft of fertile questions, including 'Will this work in children?' and 'Is it safe to use in children?'" said Dr. Edwin M. Robertson, associate director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
"It is certainly possible that undergoing this procedure will affect brain function in children and so cause either neurological or psychiatric problems in the future, and so good follow-up studies are required to examine this issue," said Robertson, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "The concern is greater for children whose brains are still developing, as opposed to the adult population of volunteers who took part in the current study."
Cohen Kadosh said the next step is to test the technique on people who are among the 20 percent of the population with moderate to severe numerical disabilities, as well as on those who lose their skill with numbers as a result of stroke or degenerative disease. "Our aim is to try to find a way to enhance cognitive treatment by coupling it with noninvasive and painless brain stimulation," he said.
He acknowledged, however, that the technique may also end up being sought after by zealous parents eager to have their kids improve their math scores.
"It's just like other innovations in the past that have been misused," said Cohen Kadosh.
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