This report is included in John D. MacArthur's book,
Mind Over Gray Matter: Practical Neuroscience
from the Decade of the Brain
Published in the July 2002 Townsend Letter
Cell Phones and the Brain:
How Electricity Affects Biology
John D. MacArthur
During the past century, electricity has become the driving force of civilization, yet much mystery still surrounds this primal energy. We don't really know to what extent biological processes are affected by the electromagnetic fields that emanate from everything electrical.
As the new century promises to revolutionize our knowledge of the human brain, a crucial question begs to be answered: "What long-term effect does man-made electricity have on our extraordinarily complex and sensitive brains?"
Current safety guidelines for cell phones are intended to protect the human body only from excessive heating caused by absorption of energy a known danger linked to the intensity of radiofrequency microwaves. But intensity and temperature are not the only considerations.
Living cells also respond in non-thermal ways to the low frequency magnetic fields produced by cell phones. Consequently, bioeffects can occur at intensities well below the established safety threshold.
"In Russia, where the frequency-specific sensitivity of living organisms to ultra-low intensity microwave radiation was first discovered over 30 years ago, the exposure guidelines are approximately 100 times more stringent" than those tolerated in the West. Dr. Gerard Hyland, Department of Physics at Warwick University in the UK and the International Institute of Biophysics in Germany.
Evidence is reviewed here that shows how electromagnetic fields are known to interact with biological processes: by increasing free radicals; by activating the stress response; and by altering enzyme reactions. Understanding the electrical nature of the brain will provide insight into the possible cognitive consequences of the radiofrequency radiation used in wireless communication.
ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND FREE RADICALS
The mechanism by which an external electromagnetic field (EMF) interacts with an internal biological process is thought to be through the action of free radicals. These are highly reactive atoms whose unpaired electrons initiate chemical chain reactions that damage cells.
At its most fundamental level, biology is physics. During all biochemical reactions, bonds between atoms are constantly breaking and reforming. The atoms in a chemical bond share a pair of electrons whose opposite spins create a magnetic attraction. When a chemical bond breaks, each atom reclaims its electron and briefly becomes a free radical until it pairs up with another atomic partner whose electron has an opposite spin.
The magnetic field component of an external EMF can delay this "recombination rate" of free radical pairs. In other words, magnetic fields cause radicals to stay free longer. Although measured in nanoseconds, this extra time gives them the potential to do more damage.
Ongoing research by a team of chemists at the University of Ottawa has shown that magnetic fields increase the average concentration of free radicals, lengthen their lifetime, and enhance the probability of radical reactions with cellular components.[1a]
Although free radicals are a normal part of metabolism and play a vital role in many biochemical processes, the body must keep them under control. An increase in free radicals can affect various cellular and physiological processes, including gene expression, release of calcium from intracellular storage sites, cell growth, and cell death. The actual effects, however, can vary from individual to individual and may depend on one's nutritional status and the availability of dietary antioxidants.
Electromagnetic Fields Damage DNA
Several studies by Henry Lai and Narendra Singh at the University of Washington's Bioelectromagnetics Research Laboratory have shed new light on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields. DNA damage (single- and double-strand breaks) was observed in the brain cells of rats exposed for two hours to a 60 Hz (cycles per second) magnetic field the kind generated by household electric currents. This same type of DNA damage also occurred after a two-hour exposure to radiofrequency microwaves at power levels considered safe.
The researchers then found that this EMF-induced DNA damage could be blocked by treating the rats with antioxidants, including melatonin, immediately before and after exposure. Melatonin is a hormone secreted from the brain's pineal gland. As a potent antioxidant, it effectively eliminates free radicals inside cells suggesting that free radicals may play a role in the genetic damage caused by magnetic fields.[2,3]
Neurons Affected by Radiofrequency
The effect of radiofrequency radiation on DNA could conceivably be more significant on neurons than on other cell types, because these nerve cells have a low capability for DNA repair, says Dr. Lai.
"Since nerve cells do not divide and are not likely to become cancerous, more likely consequences of DNA damage in nerve cells are changes in functions and cell death, which could either lead to or accelerate the development of neurodegenerative diseases." (Glial cells, however, can become cancerous. These more numerous brain cells protect and support neurons.)
Dr. Lai cautions against applying the existing research results to evaluate the possible health effects of normal cell phone usage. While "it is difficult to deny that radiofrequency at low intensity can affect the nervous system," he says the data available suggest a complex reaction. Other parameters of exposure, "such as frequency, duration, waveform, frequency- and amplitude-modulation, etc., are important determinants of biological responses." More research is needed, but since not much is known on the biological effects of cell phones, "prudent usage should be taken as a logical guideline."
Cumulative Effects from Duration of Exposure
UPDATE: In a 2004 study, Lai and Singh exposed rats to magnetic fields of only one-tenth the intensity of the above experiment but this time for 24 hours instead of two hours. They observed a similar increase in DNA damage and brain cell apoptosis (suicide) showing that duration of exposure to magnetic fields can be as damaging as their intensity. And, effects of exposure are cumulative.
Lai believes that magnetic fields rather than causing harm directly initiate a process within cells that leads to damage. He and Singh hypothesize that exposure to magnetic fields affects the balance of iron in brain cells, leading to an increase in free radicals.
DNA Conducts Electricity
Swiss scientists at the University of Basel reported in 1999 that DNA conducts electricity as well as a good semiconductor. A research team from the Georgia Institute of Technology actually observed the complicated process by which an electrical charge moves through DNA.
"It's not at all like a conductor or a wire," said lead author Dr. Gary B. Schuster. He compared the charge transport mechanism to the movement of a Slinky, the large spring used as a toy. When an electrical charge is injected into DNA, the DNA responds by changing its structure to accommodate and distribute the charge over several of its structural base pairs. This creates a local distortion that, just like the compression in a Slinky, can move in the DNA.
The charge transfer stops when it encounters a specific pairing of two chemical bases (guanine), where it then oxidizes the guanine and causes strand breaks that can lead to genetic mutations.
Normally, DNA is capable of efficiently repairing itself. Through a homeostatic mechanism, cells maintain a delicate balance between spontaneous and induced DNA damage. By causing an increase in free radicals, however, EMFs may alter this balance.
Errors in Cell Division May Be the Key to Aging
A study published in the March 31, 2000 edition of Science indicates that the source of many, if not all illnesses of aging, may be due to gradual genetic changes. Lead researcher Danith Ly, Ph.D., theorized that genes go awry because they are damaged by free radicals.
"This study suggests that aging is really a disease of quality control. In this case the manufactured product is a new cell," says co-author Richard A. Lerner, M.D., president of The Scripps Research Institute.
While the research is not conclusive, Lerner says the process begins slowly in middle age and gradually accelerates as we get older. In tissues throughout the body, an increase in cell division errors leads to altered gene expression which causes the loss of tissue function culminating in the diseases and conditions associated with human aging.
In 1999, Swedish researchers exposed mice to EMFs generated by actual outdoor electric transmission power lines (220 kV). After 32 days of exposure, a highly significant change was observed in the animals' brain cells. The researchers said their "data indicate that transmission lines of this type may induce genotoxic effects in mice, seen as changes in the DNA migration."
HEAT SHOCK STRESS
The Scripps study also revealed links to specific age-related disorders. In Alzheimer's disease, there was evidence for the over-expression of a small protein associated with heat shock. Other studies have confirmed the presence of alpha B-crystallin and other "heat shock proteins" in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's as well as in those with Parkinson's disease. Furthermore, the myelin-producing cells (oligodendrocytes) were among those most affected.[9,10,11,12]
Swedish researchers at the University of Goteborg have shown an association between Alzheimer's disease and altered lipid composition in myelin, indicating that demyelination is a primary event in late-onset form Alzheimer's disease.[13,14]
In a significant study titled "Cell biology: Non-thermal heat-shock response to microwaves," worms were continuously exposed to microwave radiation of the sort emitted by cell phones. The researchers showed "that prolonged exposure to low-intensity microwave fields can induce heat-shock responses in the soil nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This effect appears to be non-thermal, suggesting that current exposure limits set for microwave equipment may need to be reconsidered."
Keeping brain cells from overheating is one of the bloodstream's functions. Blood not only delivers oxygen, glucose, and nutrients, and removes toxins; it also cools the brain. An efficient cerebral vascular system enabled the evolution of intelligence, and healthy blood vessels continue to be necessary for proper cognitive function and for protection against neurodegenerative diseases especially since both "epidemiologic and pathologic observations suggest that vascular factors may contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease."
The summer 1999 heat wave in the Midwest revealed another piece to the neurological health puzzle. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that psychiatric medicines could make the mentally ill especially vulnerable to death from intense summer heat. This is because antidepressants that target the brain can interfere with the body's thermoregulatory system.
Heat Stress from EMFs
To protect body tissue from being overheated, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set the maximum allowed "specific absorption rate" (SAR) from cell phones at 1.6 W/Kg (watts per kilogram). This is partial-body exposure, as averaged over one gram of tissue. The whole-body threshold is 0.08 W/Kg.
This thermal threshold is itself problematical, because it is based on the body's ability to maintain homeostasis during heating from the radiofrequency radiation. But even if the body's thermoregulatory mechanism succeeds in distributing the heat and maintaining the temperature at the pre-irradiation value, a certain stress still develops.
A pioneer in the bioeffects of electromagnetic fields, Robert O. Becker, M.D., emphasizes the role of EMFs in producing stress. In his landmark 1990 book, Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution; The Promise of Electromedicine, he points out that exposure to any abnormal electromagnetic field produces a stress response. After prolonged exposure, the body's stress response system can be exhausted and the immune system compromised. In such a state, animals and humans could become more susceptible to cancer and infectious diseases.
Dr. Becker refers to experiments conducted in the early 1980s by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine that were reported in the September 1986 issue of Scientific American. Test animals were continuously exposed for long periods to microwaves at a power density twenty times lower than the safe thermal level. They developed a fourfold increase in cancers of the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands the primary organs through which the body mediates stress.
The cellular stress response is a protective mechanism that enables cells to survive. It is activated by a wide variety of environmental stimuli, such as high temperature, oxygen starvation, and heavy metals, as well as EMFs. Cells essentially perceive man-made electromagnetic fields as potentially harmful.
Thermal vs. Non-Thermal Stress Response
Ongoing research by Columbia University scientists Reba Goodman and Martin Blank has focused on how EMFs cause stress in cells. They found that the "cellular response to low frequency magnetic fields is activated by unusually weak stimuli, and involves pathways only partially associated with heat shock stress."
To provide a more realistic basis for new cell phone safety standards, Goodman and Blank have recently focused on the bioeffects of radiofrequency radiation. They discovered remarkable similarities in the biological responses to both the low and the high frequency fields emanating from cell phones. What's more, preliminary results showed that "the energy required to induce stress proteins with low frequency EM fields is 14 orders of magnitude lower than required by temperature increase.
Not only did they find it possible to differentiate between thermal and non-thermal stress, but the stress proteins induced by low frequency served as "biomarkers" to monitor the early stages of the cellular stress reaction to EMFs prior to activation by increased temperature. They believe this will make it is possible to establish a lower, more accurate safety threshold for cell phones and towers.
ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND ENZYMES
Another pathway by which living organisms are influenced by radiofrequency radiation in a non-thermal way may be through an alteration in the activity of important enzymes. Enzymes are crucial because they act as catalysts to accelerate hundreds of thousands of metabolic reactions that would otherwise take place far too slowly to sustain life. Enzyme reaction rate is therefore a key factor in biochemical processes.
A well-studied example is ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), an enzyme involved in the regulation of cell growth. High ODC activity is characteristic of the unregulated growth of tumor cells, and ODC activity is sensitive to both extremely low frequency magnetic fields and to radiofrequency fields.[20,21]
Scientists are learning more and more about intracellular communication pathways. Signals originating at the cell membrane initiate a production sequence of enzyme "cascades" within the cell. These signaling pathways are proving to be sensitive to weak EMFs.[22,23]
In his summary of "Cell and Molecular Biology Associated with Radiation Fields of Mobile Telephones," longtime EMF researcher Dr. W. Ross Adey writes: "Microwave bioeffects at the cellular level support concepts of athermal responses not mediated by tissue heating... Cell membranes have been identified as the site of transduction of many of these responses, with initiation of enzyme cascades that chemically couple cell surface radiofrequency signals to intracellular systems, including some that reach cell nuclei and regulate processes of cell growth and division."
Programmed Cell Death
Dr. Adey also points to evidence that suggests these same enzyme cascades have probable continuing roles in programmed-cell-death (apoptosis), in the promotional phase of tumor formation, and in the pathophysiology of certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
In the process of programmed-cell-death, caspase enzymes are unleashed to destroy cells that are abnormal or are no longer needed. In Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), scientists believe the process of caspase-mediated apoptosis is misdirected and begins to destroy neurons.
Researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and at Harvard Medical School have identified an enzyme that may be involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease. Calpain, a calcium-dependent cysteine protease, appears to be a common mechanistic link between the death of primary cortical neurons and known causes of neurotoxic damage, including oxidative stress, excitotoxic chemicals, and oxygen starvation.
Enzymes and Free Radicals
The brains of Alzheimer's disease patients show reduced activity of ketoglutarate dehydrogenase complex (KGDHC), a key mitochondrial enzyme complex whose reduction may be responsible for the decreases in brain metabolism characteristic of many neurodegenerative disorders. Research by neuroscientists at Cornell University suggests "KGDHC participates in a deleterious cascade of events related to oxidative stress that are critical in selective neuronal loss in neurodegenerative diseases."[27,28]
Much of this intracellular signaling is mediated by free radicals. Like so many processes, enzyme kinetics are also affected by radical pair recombination rates. Research conducted at Stanford University's Department of Radiation Oncology suggests that although a magnetic field may induce only a very small change in radical pair recombination rate, "the effect on the enzyme reaction rate is considerably larger, for example, by a factor of 1 to 100."
Related research by chemists at the University of Utah found that a decrease in the activity of a vitamin B12-dependent enzyme was likely caused by an applied magnetic field which changed the behavior of free radical pairs.
The crucial neurotransmitter dopamine is very vulnerable to free radical damage. Many researchers believe that some diseases of aging most notably, Parkinson's are associated with the loss of dopamine-using neurons. Lorraine Iacovitti, Ph.D., showed in animal experiments that melatonin was effective in blocking the oxidative damage to these brain cells. Her results indicate "melatonin possesses the remarkable ability to rescue dopamine neurons from cell death in several experimental paradigms associated with oxidative stress."
Past research has demonstrated a correlation between EMFs and decreased levels of melatonin in the body, but results have been inconsistent. Numerous factors are involved, including one's natural melatonin levels and the length of exposure. There may be a "cumulative effect of magnetic field exposure on the stability of individual melatonin measurements over time."
EMFs are characterized by many variables, such as the orientation of the magnetic field and its polarity. In a study of electric utility workers, Dr. Jim Burch of Colorado State University has shown that certain EMF environments have a greater effect on melatonin levels. The key difference may be the polarization of the magnetic field. Burch's preliminary results agree with a series of animal studies by Dr. Masamichi Kato at Hokkaido University School of Medicine, Sapporo, Japan.
Two studies reported in the October 17, 2001 Journal of the National Cancer Institute offer insight into melatonin's protective role.
Researchers a the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center interviewed more than 800 Seattle-area women diagnosed with breast cancer about their exposure to light at night, and history of shift work. Women who worked the graveyard shift at least once during the decade before breast-cancer diagnosis were at approximately 60% increased risk for breast cancer compared with those who did not work the graveyard shift. And, the risk significantly increased with each additional hour per week of graveyard-shift work.
In a second study of 78,000 nurses who worked the night shift, those who had worked less than 30 years on a rotating night-shift schedule had an 8% increase in their risk of developing breast cancer. Nurses who worked more years had a 36% increase.
The Harvard Medical School concluded, "Women who work on rotating night shifts with at least 3 nights per month, in addition to days and evenings in that month, appear to have a moderately increased risk of breast cancer after extended periods of working rotating night shifts."
It's believed that nighttime sleep deprivation or exposure to light at night interrupts melatonin production, which in turn stimulates the ovaries to kick out extra estrogen a known hormonal promoter of breast cancer.
Previous research found blind women to have a 20-50% reduced risk of breast cancer. Perhaps because they're immune to fluctuations in light, their melatonin levels remain constant, which also keeps their circulating estrogen levels in check.
OUR ELECTROMAGNETIC BRAIN AND ENVIRONMENT
Until very recently it was thought that neurons can communicate only by using chemical neurotransmitters that travel across the gaps (synapses) between them. In 1999, Brown University researchers discovered a network of inhibitory neurons able to communicate directly with one another through electrical connections a previously unknown type of brain circuitry.
Inhibitory Neurons Use Electrical Connections
According to neuroscience professor Barry Connors, electrical synapses may allow these neurons to generate activity over a large area of the brain. They may be acting as the brain's "pacemaker" by creating some of the brain's rhythmic electrical activity, which can be measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG).
Inhibitory neurons prevent the brain from quickly spinning out of control into hyperexcited states. Their malfunction is involved in autism and ADHD, as well as in memory disorders, neural trauma, and addictions. They also play a role in a wide range of psychiatric conditions, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and schizophrenia.
This electric neural network is especially suited to regulating higher brain functions, explains Connors. "Most of the time it is not doing anything, but it becomes active when the brain's activity increases to a high level. . . and may act like the governor on the engine of the cortex, keeping excitability from running away and becoming an epileptic seizure."
Researchers at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science recently discovered that inhibitory neurons are far more diverse than previously thought and have an extremely sophisticated system of controlling other neurons. They build complex synaptic connections onto thousands of neighboring neurons. These synapses then act as fast-switching "if-then" filtering gates which allow inhibition to be selectively applied at the exact millisecond and to the right degree. This allows a small group of inhibitory neurons to simultaneously give personal attention to the activity of each of the neurons to which they are connected.
Electrical Rhythms in the Thalamus
Another newly recognized electrical aspect of the brain involves the thalamus, a crucial region that helps filter sensory information from the environment. As a communication hub, the thalamus plays a central role in the brain's ability to perceive, interpret, and respond.
Dr. Rodolfo Llinas, a professor of physiology at New York University School of Medicine, has demonstrated that the frequency of brain's electrical system is slower in the thalamus during sleep and much higher when a person is awake. He observed that patients suffering from Parkinson's disease had low frequency oscillations in their brain patterns when awake, instead of the usual high frequency ones. Part of the thalamus' intricate network seemed to be still asleep, causing havoc in the brain's perception of the internal and external environments.
At the October 1999 Society for Neuroscience meeting, Llinas suggested that these abnormal rhythms may be a common thread underlying Parkinson's disease, depression, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain, and tinnitis.
The Electromagnetic Spectrum Ain't What She Used to Be
From fertilization to final heartbeat, we are electrical beings. Death is even defined as the end of electrical activity in the brain. We have evolved within a narrow range of physical parameters (temperature, pressure, gravity), but more than any other aspect of nature we have altered our electromagnetic environment immersing ourselves in a sea of man-made EMFs that only a century ago were unknown to life.
Only now are we beginning to realize how a small increase in global temperature can have complex consequences. We know even less about the true repercussions of the unnatural electromagnetic radiation we are creating. This revolutionary modification of a fundamental aspect of life is untested for long-term safety. Furthermore, epidemiological effects of EMFs are difficult to measure, because few control groups exist. (It's interesting to note that the Amish population has a lower prevalence of dementia.)
Despite industry assurances of safety, an increasing number of scientists and citizens are insisting on caution the precautionary principle of prudent avoidance until we know much more about the bioeffects of EMFs, especially those associated with cell phones and transmission towers.
The editor of Microwave News, Louis Slesin, Ph.D., says spending on safety research has been ridiculously small. "After all, when a device is pumping radiofrequency/microwave energy into a complex electrical system like the brain, it would seem natural to ask if it changes the way that system works. Instead, no cognitive studies of mobile phones were done until the last couple of years, and none has ever been done in the United States."
The most contentious issue surrounding cell phones is the safety of long-term, low-dose irradiation from their transmission towers. People throughout the world are expressing their opposition to the presence of these techno-monuments in their neighborhood.
After reviewing research and testimonies from around the world on health effects associated with wireless radiation, the Scottish Parliament's Transport and the Environment Committee recommended in March 2000 that all telecommunication towers, including cell phone transmission towers, should be required to apply for planning permissions, and local authorities should adopt a precautionary approach:
"Based on the evidence received, the Committee considers that there is reasonable doubt about the health risks and recommends that health should be viewed as a material planning consideration and a precautionary approach should be adopted at a national level allowing for local flexibility. The Committee considers that areas such as schools, nurseries, hospitals, and residential areas may be considered sensitive for environmental health reasons."
Towers are often opposed simply because they're ugly and their flashing red lights are annoying. But that's like condemning secondhand cigarette smoke only because it interferes with your view.
Wireless communication towers are just the tip of the iceberg: what we can see. Unfortunately, our five senses cannot perceive the bulk of the iceberg: invisible radiation streaming from them and all the other transmitters proliferating in our communities. But our exquisitely sensitive brains can, and react to wireless radiation in subtle yet significant ways.
Cell Phones Cigarettes of the 21st Century
Cell phones have many practical benefits, and despite their downside are likely to be with us for a long time (as the internal partial-combustion engine has been) until their bioeffects are finally realized.
In the author's opinion, however, they are well on their way to becoming the "cigarettes" of this century. They are increasingly banned in restaurants and concert halls because of the annoying secondhand sound waves emanating from their users. Airplanes may allow them to be used during flight, but they will probably end up being relegated to a cell phone section of the airplane.
The way cell phones are practically given away is reminiscent of how cigarettes were introduced into new markets. Eventually, these phones too will probably have to carry warning labels that escalate in severity over the years. And, few will be surprised if it's ultimately revealed that the telecommunications industry knew all along about the negative effects of cell phone usage.
Today, we view classic films with a mixture of amusement and amazement as movie stars constantly smoke cigarettes in the most inappropriate situations, from baby rooms to bomb shelters. In the future, when we look back at today's media celebration of cell phones, will we cringe at the sight of children holding high-frequency radiation transmitters up against their brains?
Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones
Conflicting studies and conflicts of interest have led to considerable controversy, but some progress toward a realistic analysis of cell phone safety was made in 2000. Adopting an evidence-based approach, the British government-appointed Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones conducted "a rigorous assessment of existing research" the most thorough yet undertaken. For eight months the panel of 12 scientists consulted widely and heard evidence from experts, members of the public, representatives of government, interest groups, and the industry. On May 11, 2000, the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (iegmp.org.uk) presented its report on Mobile Phones and Health. Key findings include:
"First, the balance of the evidence available does not suggest that RF [radiofrequency] radiation from mobile phones or base stations causes cancer or other disease. However, there is now evidence that effects on biological functions, including those of the brain, may be induced by RF radiation at levels comparable to those associated with the use of mobile phones. There is, as yet, no evidence that these biological effects constitute a health hazard, but at present only limited data are available.
"We conclude therefore that it is not possible at present to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects.
"We recommend that a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available... These should include the following: effects on brain function, consequences of exposures to pulsed signals,... the possible impact on health of sub-cellular and cellular changes induced by RF radiation.
"Children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure... We believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged."
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