Poor cellphones. They get blamed for causing brain tumors, reducing bone density, prompting headaches and dizziness, and more. Though most rigorous research has exonerated the phones (not to mention the laws of physics), many people remain unconvinced.
Now comes a study from the University of South Florida that links cellphones to Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s a twist: The researchers found that radiation from the phones protected mice from the disease, and might even reverse the symptoms.
These surprising results were not found by engineering tiny iPhones and holding them up to the rodents’ ears. Instead, researchers at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center arranged about 70 mouse cages in a circle around a central antenna that emitted electromagnetic waves typical of what would emanate from a phone pressed to a human head. They were exposed to the radiation for two hours a day over seven to nine months. About two dozen other mice served as controls.
Some of these mice were normal, but most of them had a genetic mutation that caused them to develop the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Among these mice, some were old enough to exhibit the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s and others were still young and healthy.
The researchers found that the memory problems of the older Alzheimer’s mice disappeared over the course of the study. Younger Alzheimer’s mice who were asymptomatic maintained their cognitive function, and the normal mice actually got a memory boost from the cellphone antenna.
It appears that the electromagnetic waves somehow broke down the beta-amyloid plaques in the mouse brains or prevented them from forming in the first place, the researchers said. It’s not clear how this happened, but they found that the temperature of the brains of the Alzheimer’s mice rose by more than 1 degree Centigrade when the cell antenna was turned on. The scientists speculate that the temperature increase caused the mice’s brain cells to release the plaques, which were then flushed from their systems.
The results “suggest that high frequency [electromagnetic field] exposure could be a non-invasive, nonpharmacologic therapeutic against [Alzheimer’s disease], as well as a means to enhance memory in general,” according to the study, which was published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The researchers are now investigating that possibility, especially since Alzheimer’s has proven to be stubbornly resistant to pharmaceutical treatment.
William Thies, the chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Assn., called the results "interesting though very preliminary."
"This idea deserves further study," he said in a statement. In the meantime, Thies advised Alzheimer's patients and other would-be memory boosters against "self-medicating" by spending extra time on their cellphones -- especially if they are driving.
Sound advice, to be sure. But if the Florida researchers succeed, perhaps someday your cellphone bill will be covered by health insurance.
-- Karen KaplanPhoto: Mice were exposed to cellphone signals from a centrally located antenna. Photo credit: University of South Florida