Improvement in performance following cognitive training is known to be further enhanced when coupled with brain stimulation. Here we ask whether training-induced changes can be maintained long term and, crucially, whether they can extend to other related but untrained skills. We trained overall 40 human participants on a simple and well established paradigm assessing the ability to discriminate numerosity–or the number of items in a set–which is thought to rely on an “approximate number sense” (ANS) associated with parietal lobes. We coupled training with parietal stimulation in the form of transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS), a noninvasive technique that modulates neural activity. This yielded significantly better and longer lasting improvement (up to 16 weeks post-training) of the precision of the ANS compared with cognitive training in absence of stimulation, stimulation in absence of cognitive training, and cognitive training coupled to stimulation to a control site (motor areas). Critically, only ANS improvement induced by parietal tRNS + Training transferred to proficiency in other parietal lobe-based quantity judgment, i.e., time and space discrimination, but not to quantity-unrelated tasks measuring attention, executive functions, and visual pattern recognition. These results indicate that coupling intensive cognitive training with tRNS to critical brain regions resulted not only in the greatest and longer lasting improvement of numerosity discrimination, but importantly in this enhancement being transferable when trained and untrained abilities are carefully chosen to share common cognitive and neuronal components.
This article is freely available online through the J Neurosci Author Open Choice option.