Cell phones and the brain

Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, July, 2002 by John D. MacArthur

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The chemical neurotransmitter dopamine is uniquely vulnerable to free radical damage. Many researchers believe that some diseases of aging -- most notably, Parkinson's disease -- are associated with the loss of dopamine-using neurons. Lorraine Iacovitti, PhD, 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." (7)

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. A recent study suggests there may be a "cumulative effect of magnetic field exposure on the stability of individual melatonin measurements over time." (8)

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. (9) Burch's preliminary results agree with a series of animal studies by Dr. Masamichi Kato at Hokkaido University School of Medicine, Sapporo, Japan. (10)

DNA Conducts Electricity

Swiss scientists at the University of Basel reported in March 1999 that DNA conducts electricity as well as a good semiconductor. A few months later, 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. (11)

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.

Cell Division Errors and 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, PhD, 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, MD, 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. (12)

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." (13)

Heat Shock

The Scripps study also revealed links to specific age-related disorders. In Alzheimer's disease, there was evidence for the overexpression of a small protein associated with heat shock. Other studies have confirmed the presence of alpha Bcrystallin and other heat shock proteins in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's as well as in those with Parkinson's disease. Furthermore, the myclinproducing cells (oligodendrocytes) were among those most affected. (14-17)

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. (18, 19)

In a significant new 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 Caenouhabditis elegans. This effect appears to be non-thermal, suggesting that current exposure limits set for microwave equipment may need to be reconsidered." (20)

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." (21)

The summer 1999 heat wave in the Midwest revealed another piece to the neurological health puzzle. The US 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. (22)

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, MD, 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 US 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 develoyed a fourfold increase in cancers of the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands -- the primary organs though 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." (23)

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." (24)



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