Effect Measure

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Yet another cell phone and disease story, and while this one is on the “good news” side, it doesn’t reassure me:

The millions of people who spend hours every day on a cell phone, may have a new excuse for yakking. A surprising new study in mice provides the first evidence that long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with cell phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer?s disease. The study, led by University of South Florida researchers at the Florida Alzheimer?s Disease Research Center (ADRC), was published today in the Journal of Alzheimer?s Disease.

?It surprised us to find that cell phone exposure, begun in early adulthood, protects the memory of mice otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer?s symptoms,? said lead author Gary Arendash, PhD, Research Professor at the Florida ADRC. ?It was even more astonishing that the electromagnetic waves generated by cell phones actually reversed memory impairment in old Alzheimer?s mice.? (Press release, J. Alzheimer’s Disease)

The paper is said to have shown that cell phone non-ionizing radiation prevented amyloid plagues in young mice and “erased” amyloid plaques in older ones in a study with a mouse model of the disease. Even more surprising was the claim that normal mouse memory was improved. Hmmm. According to the journal:

The highly-controlled study allowed researchers to isolate the effects of cell phone exposure on memory from other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise. It involved 96 mice, most of which were genetically altered to develop beta-amyloid plaques and memory problems mimicking Alzheimer?s disease as they aged. Some mice were non-demented, without any genetic predisposition for Alzheimer?s, so researchers could test the effects of electromagnetic waves on normal memory as well.

I hadn’t realized mouse life styles were so decadent, but if a mouse sets foot in our house Mrs. R. gets out the nuclear arsenal, so I haven’t had a lot of chance to observe them in the wild.

The mice were exposed to cell phone radiation from “standard cell phones” for two 1-hour periods a day for either 7 or 9 months. Their cages were arranged around a central antenna. Doses were said to be typical of what is caused by pressing the usual cell phone transmitter next to the skull. That’s probably well within the usual exposure durations of most teenagers and many adults.

If this effect is real, the good news is that this might provide a non-invasive non pharmaceutical prophylactic and therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating malady that afflicts an untold number of middle aged and older people. However the effects were not apparent until a significant fraction of the mouse’s lifetime had elapsed (many months), so the the therapeutic potential is unclear.

There is obviously a long way to go to verify this report, including what amplitudes and frequencies are most effective and what portions of the (much larger) human brain should be irradiated. And if this is a real effect there is still a lot of work to do on the mechanism. The Alzheimer’s mice (but not the normal mice) showed a slight increase in brain temperature after the passage of time and the authors suggest this might have helped clear the amuyloid plagues. Of course it might also have been a consequence of whatever process was causing removal of the plagues. If the effect is real.

If real, then what about it isn’t reassuring? One of the arguments that long term use of cell phones wasn’t dangerous was that it wasn’t plausible non-ionizing radiation could have any significant biological effect. Whatever else you might say, this is certainly a significant biological effect. If verified, this would add fuel to the continuing controversy over cell phones and brain cancer. Malignant brain cancer is relatively uncommon (although not rare), so even a doubling of risk doesn’t translate into huge numbers, but it is an extraordinarily prevalent exposure for which we have very little long term evidence for human health effects.

On the anecdotal side, my (cross-sectional) observations of drivers are that one possible effect on cognition, whatever the effects on memory, is that a significant number of people with cell phones are stupid.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Purdy
    January 15, 2010

    Fox News breaking news bulletins:

    #1: “Cell phone radiation reverses Alzheimer’s!”

    #2: “Radiation does affect brain cells, possibly leading to cancer!”

    #3: “Cancer cures Alzheimer’s!”

    #4: “Fox News viewers not affected, too few brain cells present!”

  2. #2 history punk
    January 15, 2010

    Isn’t there a big difference between breaking down plaque and spawning a cancerous tumor?

  3. #3 revere
    January 15, 2010

    historypunk: Yes, of course. But the question is whether non-ionizing radiation can have any effects except thermal. Physicists say no. If this effect is non-termal, and it is a real effect, then that’s not valid any more.

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    January 15, 2010

    The abstract says they were using 0.25 watts per kg, and that they did observe thermal effects.

    I would not get excited about this. The mice they used are engineered to overexpress amyloid. They don’t have “Alzheimer’s”, they have pathological overexpression of amyloid protein such that it builds up and causes problems.

    Humans with Alzheimer’s have been vaccinated against amyloid protein, their immune systems have cleared all the amyloid out, and it has made no difference at all in cognitive function.

    I think the accumulation of amyloid is an effect, not a cause. I think it is similar to all the other neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are characterized by the accumulation of damaged dysfunctional proteins, amyloid, tau, Lewy bodies, lipofuscin, huntingtin. All these diseases are also characterized by ATP depletion and reduced blood flow. The disposal pathways for damaged proteins are powered by ATP, either the proteasome, or autophagy.

    It makes sense to me, that if there isn’t enough ATP, that something has to be shut-off. The obvious things to shut off are those things which are the least critical in the short term. Disposal of damaged proteins only frees up the substrate molecules that comprise them, and frees up the volume they occupy. In an ATP crisis, neither of those seem very important to me.

  5. #5 MD in MD
    January 15, 2010

    Do senators from MA have a long history of cell phone use?

  6. #6 Carol@SC
    January 15, 2010

    On your comment of, “On the anecdotal side, my (cross-sectional) observations of drivers are that one possible effect on cognition, whatever the effects on memory, is that a significant number of people with cell phones are stupid.”

    ROTF! You are so right about that. They are almost as stupid as the ones standing in line at the grocery store, Walmart, etc., yakking on the phone instead of doing what they need to do to get the hell out of the way so the rest of us can get through the line and get home! The annoyance of people yakking on cell phones at improper times may be the single prime reason some of us are against stricter gun control.

  7. #7 Oz Observer
    January 16, 2010

    Revere, this finding is pretty startling. After my PhD in physics I spent a few years working on theoretical studies of the interaction of low power EM radiation with nerve & muscle cells. As you say, the conventional view was that no effect was possible. However, this was usually based on looking at a single cell in isolation and looking for strong biophysical effects. It always seemed to me that more subtle mechanisms could be considered. These might involve the collective response of large numbers of cells, perhaps involving disruption/augmentation of spatio-temporal patterns of electrical activity. Of course, one problem immediately is that not much is really known about how the brain function normally.

    My first reaction to this finding is skepticism, but I am also intrigued. I believe it is thought that persistent challenging cognitive activity helps avoid Alzheimer’s in humans. So the intriguing possibility is that the EM exposure somehow substitutes for the electrical activity that cognitive challenges generate.

    But I am also disturbed because, just as you say, if *any* effect is confirmed, then the whole question of other dangerous effects is blown wide open and the question of safe dosage arises.

    Fortunately, it should be fairly easy to replicate this study.

  8. #8 revere
    January 16, 2010

    Oz Observer: I agree with all your points. What is a signal lost in the noise at the scale of a single cell might not be the same over the scale of a tissue or organ. I think it is undeniable that we can see biological perturbations following non-ionizing EMF exposures. What we don’t know is whether they are harmful or not.

  9. #9 RandomEngineer
    January 16, 2010

    “On the anecdotal side, my (cross-sectional) observations of drivers are that one possible effect on cognition, whatever the effects on memory, is that a significant number of people with cell phones are stupid.”

    Seems like this would actually mean a significant number of people who talk on cell phones while driving are stupid. Odds are they got that way before deciding to divert their attention while piloting a giant mass of metal around at high speed.