Cell Phone Use Linked to Brain Changes

Many studies have tried to connect cell phone use to brain tumors and other health problems. Most have been inconclusive, but recently studies have begun to hint at possible connections. More scientists and governments are now advising people – especially adolescents – limit cell phone use. Image (Image credit: stockxpert)

Peasants waving pitchforks and torches are not exactly storming the castle, but the scientists are sure restless. Yet another scientific study has come out questioning whether cell phone use is good for your brain — and there's more on the way.

The Swedish Research Council announced yesterday that researchers at Sweden's Örebro University can point to a specific biological effect that cell phone use has on the brain. However, they can’t decide if the effect is good, bad, or indifferent.

Basically, they found an association between cell phone use and an increased amount of a protein called transthyretin in the blood. Transthyretin is associated with the fluid that cushions the brain.

An increase in transthyretin may not be any cause for concern, but it does indicate that cell phone use does have some biological effect on the brain, said researcher Fredrik Söderqvist.

The same study found that children and teenagers who were heavy cell phone users were more likely to report health problems, including headaches and impaired concentration.

Söderqvist declined to draw a cause-and-effect relationship, however.

"The connection was strongest regarding headaches, asthmatic complaints, and impaired concentration," he said. "But more research is needed to exclude the effects of other factors and sources of error, even though it is difficult to see how this connection could be fully explained by such factors."

Spreading unrest

Cell phone makers can point to about 30 studies indicating that the devices are not a health risk, but that had not stopped research like Söderqvist's. Meanwhile there are reports of an upcoming World Health Organization (WHO) study linking cell phones to brain tumors, and the Congress recently held a hearing on the dangers.

The WHO effort reportedly involved studies in 13 countries looking at the difference in cell phone use between tumor sufferers and those in good health. Six of the eight studies that looked at a dangerous brain tumor called glioma showed some increased risk. Two of seven examining benign tumors of the nerve between the ear and the brain showed some increase. One study showed an increased risk of tumors of the parotid salivary gland.

The WHO study is expected to be published by the end of the year in a scientific journal.

Meanwhile, a Congressional hearing on cell phone health issues was held in September, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-PA. The official purpose of the hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies was to see if the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should get additional research funding for whole cell-phone-danger thing, but was really just to call attention to the issue.

The lawmakers heard that the NIH is current testing the effects of cell phone on mice and won't have results until 2014. In the meantime, they heard from experts who suggested:

  • Keep the phone at least an inch away from the body at all times.
  • Don't use the phone when signal strength is low, since the unit emits more power while trying to boost the signal.
  • Use wired ear buds — not Bluetooth wireless headsets, which also involve emissions.

Other warnings

Many countries have already issued standing guidelines for cell phone use, typically saying that use should be minimized for children.

In France, for instance, cell phones can’t be advertised to children under 12, they must be sold with hands-free extensions, and there are limits on radiation emissions.

In Germany, low-emission phones carry a special seal of approval.

Finland advises that children should stick to texting, rather than talk on the things.

Sadly, no nation has yet taken a position that people would be better of not dividing their attention between those around them and some distant person whispering in one ear. Maybe next year?