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Brain stimulation could help children with learning difficulties

Performance of children with mathematical learning difficulties could be improved with the help of a brain stimulation method, a new study shows. Researchers warn that the method is not ready to be used as an intervention tool and should not be used in typically developing children.

Researchers from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge used a brain stimulation method – known as transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS) – on twelve children between the ages of eight and eleven with learning difficulties in mathematics. The children were split into two groups of six, with one group wearing a cap attached to a light, battery-operated device through which painless low electrical current was applied over the left and right areas on the forehead, above regions of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. This region has been highlighted to play a role in mathematical learning.

The other group wore an identical cap but did not receive any stimulation. Children did not detect reliably whether they received stimulation or not.

While wearing the caps, the children in both groups played a specially-designed numerical training game developed by the researchers, which integrates numerical learning and visuospatial components, with bodily movements, while the game changed its level adaptively based on the child’s performance. The method was applied in nine 20-minute sessions over 5 weeks.

Immediately before and after the trial, the researchers also measured their performance in a mathematical test called MALT, a standardized diagnostic tool calibrated to the UK’s national curriculum.

They found that stimulation yields a mixed effect in term of performance but improved the learning of children during the numerical training game, compared to those who wore the ‘placebo’ cap. The results also hinted that the positive effects of tRNS have contributed to improved results on the MALT test.

These findings resemble previous studies on healthy adults that suggested tRNS over the same regions of the brain improved arithmetic learning compared to the control group, and generalised to related materials that were not specifically trained.

“Our research suggests that children with learning difficulties might benefit from combining their learning with tRNS, which has been suggested to improve learning and alter brain functions in healthy adults,” Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, said.

The study is still just a first step from a scientific perspectiv, as understanding the potential of this method needs further research. Still, it showed that children who received brain stimulation during numerical training showed better learning compared to those in the sham stimulation group, while hinting that improvement induced by tRNS was associated with improvement in a standardized diagnostic mathematical test. No children showed or reported minor or major side-effects, according to the researchers.

The team behind the study warns that brain stimulation at that stage should not be used in children with learning difficulties beyond experiments conducted by scientists. Also, they say that not all children will benefit from this approach and it may not be safe for use in all children.

The study took place at Fairley House, a specialist day school for children with specific learning difficulties in London.

John Beckett