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Do Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer’s?

Scientific studies are not meant to be amusing, but I laughed out loud when I heard about this one. After all the concern about possible adverse health effects from cell phone use, this study tells us cell phone use can prevent Alzheimer’s, treat Alzheimer’s, and even improve cognitive function in healthy users.

They studied transgenic mice programmed by their genes to develop Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairment; they used a group of non-transgenic littermates as controls. For an hour twice daily over several months they exposed the entire mouse cage to EMF comparable to what is emitted by cell phones. They tested cognitive function with maze tests and other tasks that are thought to measure the same things as human tests of cognitive function. The authors claim to have found striking evidence for both protective and disease-reversing effects.

EMF exposure was found to have cognitive-protective and cognitive-enhancing effects in both the normal mice and the Alzheimer’s-prone mice compared to non-EMF-exposed controls. EMF exposure raised body temperature and brain temperature by about one degree Centigrade. It also reduced the deposition of beta amyloid in the brain. Beta amyloid deposits are a pathognomonic finding in Alzheimer’s, although it is not clear whether they are a cause or a result of the disease. EMF exposure also increases cerebral blood flow and glucose utilization. It does not appear to increase oxidative stress.

This doesn’t mean we will all be smarter if we spend more time talking on our cell phones. It is a small preliminary trial that has no clinical implications as yet. It has not been replicated… although there is one intriguing epidemiologic study associating heavy cell phone use with better performance on a word interference test. Mice and humans may respond differently. Whole body exposure may not be comparable to exposure from typical cell phone use. I question whether typical cell phone use would raise brain temperature that much.

If temperature is important, are patients with elevated temperatures from other causes less susceptible to Alzheimer’s? Could supplying heat by other means work as well? Are sauna users less likely to develop Alzheimer’s? Would an electric blanket have a greater effect than a cell phone?

As cell phone use goes up in a community, does the prevalence of Alzheimer’s drop? Is the overall prevalence of Alzheimer’s greater today than it was before the invention of cell phones? If we found that cell phone users were less likely to have Alzheimer’s, that might only mean that demented people are not as capable of understanding how to use cell phones.

It’s way too early to speculate. Nevertheless, this study could be very useful as an arguing point. When technophobes and Luddites worry about possible dangers of cell phones, we can point to this as evidence of health benefits. Even if cell phones did cause a slight increase in brain cancers (the current weight of evidence indicates they don’t), at least some brain cancers are curable; Alzheimer’s is not.

Cell phone advertisers might want to incorporate these findings into new commercials. “Can you hear me now?” “Can you remember who I am?”

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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20 thoughts on “Do Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer’s?

  1. jimpurdy says:

    At first, I thought this was absurd, but the brain temperature change, if it occurs in humans, might deserve more research.

    So cell phone users really are hotheads?

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  2. Charon says:

    “I question whether typical cell phone use would raise brain temperature that much.”

    As well you should. Cell phones put out ~1 Watt. Only half that intersects your head. I don’t know the actual opacity, but most of it goes right through (hence why cell phones are not line-of-sight). So your brain gets… dunno, let’s say 0.1W for our calculation (my guess is that it’s less, probably much less). If we say the brain is ~1.5kg and mostly water, I’m getting something like 17 hours to deposit enough energy to raise the temperature 1C. Oh, and that’s ignoring the rest of the head.

    And, um, that assumes that the body has no mechanisms for heat regulation.

  3. David Driscoll says:

    With all due respect I don’t see how this could be used in an arguement if our previous position was that it doesn’t have the energy to cause changes. If the study said the opposite can I suggest that you would be much less in favour of the conclusion ?

  4. Zach says:

    If the protection and treatment benefits are due to EMF exposure, would it be worthwhile to map Alzheimer’s patent home locations against a map of high tension power lines? If there’s a gap around the power lines it might provide further evidence that EMF exposure is beneficial. I guess this wouldn’t take into account people who grew up under power lines then moved away, or people who grew up away from power lines then moved under them. But if EMF really does have both a protection and a treatment benefit, it seems that living close to power lines would possibly even reverse Alzheimer’s.

  5. Scott says:

    Charon’s right. The specific heat of water is about 4 J/gK, so at 0.25 W/kg that’s 16000 seconds, or more than 4 hours if there’s no way to lose energy (which of course there is). So it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that such exposure produces that level of heating.

    We should also note that any number of things that are encountered in daily life expose the head to much greater heat; sunlight is only a simple example. Solar flux of 340 W/m^2, call a head maybe 10 cm radius so cross-section .03 m^2, comes out to 10 W. Even if only 10% of that is absorbed (might be that low for a pale bald person, but probably not) it’s still multiple times the cell phone exposure.

    Therefore heating as a mechanism is completely laughable – if it was protective, being in the sun would be many times more protective which would already be well known.

    The only vaguely credible mechanism would be induction of a current inside the brain or something like that, but again it’s so weak that it’s not plausible.

    This will have to be replicated multiple times before I will place any credence in it.

  6. Scott says:

    Oh, and a pre-emptive followup:

    Yes, it’s true that the exposure period was apparently longer than 4 hours. That’s not the point of the calculation. The point is to show that the scale of the energy involved is just too low relative to that of the system for it to be credible as a significant factor in the overall energy balance.

  7. Nonetheless, I believe that when I am old, I shall wear a warm hat, just in case. ;)

  8. LovleAnjel says:

    You know someone is going to market a whole-body EMF emitter as an alternative remedy now.

  9. The concern I instantly had about this study when it came out (a month ago?) was that, regardless of the mechanism, people can easily read this as say “Look: cell phones _can_ affect you!”. Obviously this is totally different (I’m assuming) from ionizing radiation, and is really just heat transfer.. but for those already paranoid, I doubt must distinction would be made.

    Thankfully it at least requires an unrealistic mode of exposure to even do anything… but I suspect there will be some uproar about the “safety” of cell phones even in the face of this apparent benefit.

  10. Harriet Hall says:

    David Driscoll said, “With all due respect I don’t see how this could be used in an arguement if our previous position was that it doesn’t have the energy to cause changes. If the study said the opposite can I suggest that you would be much less in favour of the conclusion ?”

    To clarify: I am not “in favor” of the conclusion. I do not believe cell phones have any significant health effects except for an increase in auto accidents when used while driving. I was suggesting tongue-in-cheek that people who believe other unconvincing studies suggesting health dangers of cell phones could be confronted with this equally unconvincing study suggesting the opposite.

  11. B Hitt says:

    Excellent clarification, Dr. Hall. This is, in fact, precisely the kind of study that purveyors of pseudoscience (such as a possibly forthcoming EMF helmet, eh, maybe?) love. Not that there’s anything wrong with the study, but as pointed out above, this is not replicated and has no clinical implication as yet.

    As an AD researcher I’ve used a number of transgenic mouse models, and I’ve seen AD cured in these models a hundred times over in the literature. Tg mice do not get AD for the same reasons that human patients do; they overexpress mutant APP and PS1. Sporadic AD is much more complicated as evidenced by the lack of a disease-modifying therapy. The authors of the EMF article also point out that this cannot be considered a model of cell phone use because they used full-body EMF exposure and skull penetration must differ between the two species. I doubt cell phones have any effect at all on the temperatures of our brains.

    Animal studies give us small pieces of a huge puzzle, and this group’s results shed light on the role of cerebral blood flow and metabolism on AD pathology.

  12. qetzal says:

    For those who are interested, the full text of the study is here.

    I haven’t finished reading it in detail, but a couple of points are worth noting. The claimed rise in body temp was only seen in mice that had been receiving twice daily EMF exposure for 8 months, and only during the actual EMF exposure periods (1h each during early morning and late afternoon). Body temperatures were not elevated in these animals when EMF was off.

    Interestingly, acute EMF exposure in animals that had not been exposed chronically for 8 months) had no effect on body temp. That strongly suggests to me that the apparent body temp. change is not due to direct heating by the EMF. That’s as expected, given the low power of the EMF itself.

    The other interesting thing is that the EMF exposed animals were housed in a different room than the sham-exposed animals. The paper says that room temps were identical, but it still leaves open the possibility that the observed effects were due to something other than EMF. As one very simple example, maybe the EMF emitter also made a sound during the emission periods – perhaps one that the researchers couldn’t hear but the mice could? Very speculative, of course, but I’m far from convinced that it was the EMF that caused the observed changes.

  13. Telum says:

    Here is a video you might like: Its mostly making fun of the media, but gets into alt med at around 2:30
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGArqoF0TpQ&feature=player_embedded#at=149

  14. pope111 says:

    Good point qetzal, seperate rooms could be a bit of a problem… what if one of the rooms had more novel visual stimuli in it (like colourful/interesting wall paper) or some such thing, that could influence results.

    Actually i just looked at the results and the methods and they sound like they did a pretty good job making it similar for control/EMF groups. The EMF groups were in faraday cages (which sometimes are made of mesh wire) and the non/emf group were not, perhaps the nice mesh pattern visually stimulated them sufficently to prevent some of the effects of AD??? It sounds a bit of a lame excuse for the results, the EMF somehow causing the difference between groups is much more interesting…. but then the most interesting explination is not always the best in science :(

  15. pope111 says:

    …also its a 24 mice sample size with 4 groups (6ish per group)… which is not unusual in animal studies but you wouldn’t want to make too many inferences with this sample size without some replication i think.

  16. BillyJoe says:

    “…also its a 24 mice sample size with 4 groups (6ish per group)”

    Okay, I just lost interest. 8)

  17. Scott says:

    The paper says that room temps were identical, but it still leaves open the possibility that the observed effects were due to something other than EMF. As one very simple example, maybe the EMF emitter also made a sound during the emission periods – perhaps one that the researchers couldn’t hear but the mice could?

    Even simpler would be the possibility that the emitter produced enough heat to raise the temperature in the cages.

    More broadly speaking, the simple assertion that “Sham-treated animals were located in a completely separate room, with identical room temperature as in the EMF exposure room and cages arranged in the same circular pattern” is quite inadequate in my opinion. I would want to see individual thermometers in each cage, checked at least every 15 minutes during/before/after the exposure periods, before I’d be convinced that there isn’t a difference in ambient temperature.

  18. qetzal says:

    pope111,

    I agree that EMF as the cause is probably more interesting. The problem I have with that, AFAIK, there’s no known mechanism other than heat that could cause these effects. And the absence of a temperature effect in acutely treated animals seems to rule out any possible direct heating effect by the EMF.

    I’m willing to assume that there were real group-wise differences, but at this point, which is more likely? That those differences are due to EMF, which shouldn’t be able to affect the animals based on simple physical principles, or that some other uncontrolled difference between groups is responsible?

    My money’s on the latter.

    (No disrespect intended to the investigators, BTW. It looks like they tried hard to control all other variables between groups, but they couldn’t possibly eliminate every other variable, and my guess is that one or more are responsible.)

  19. pope111 says:

    I agree Qetzal, in fact i think that with such small groups there is likely no “real” difference between the groups at all, about 8 animals in each group would be a better number with a second trial showing repetition to make strong inferences about an effect.

    I wonder whether the researchers actually started out with a hypothesis that EMF would be protective or whether they actually went in to the research expecting a null or negative effect in the EMF group…

  20. professorauntie says:

    Interesting study and discussion. Even if it is found that cell phone users are less likely to have Alzheimer’s, I don’t think that would in itself suggest that cell phones prevent Alzheimer’s. It seems impossible to learn a new skill once Alzheimer’s sets in, so I think most of the people with advanced Alzheimer’s today were never able to learn to use cell phones. But as the current generation of young people get to the Alzheimer’s age, they might be able to continue using cell phones at least through the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s.

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