Researchers from the National Institutes of Health in the US have found that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna, raising new questions about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted from cellphones.
The researchers, led by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, urged caution in interpreting the findings because it is not known whether the changes, which were seen in brain scans, have any meaningful effect on a person’s overall health.
But the study, published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is among the first and largest to document that the weak radio-frequency signals from cellphones alter brain activity.
“The study is important because it documents that the human brain is sensitive to the electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by cellphones,” Volkow said. “It also highlights the importance of doing studies to address the question of whether there are — or are not — long-lasting consequences of repeated stimulation, of getting exposed over five, 10 or 15 years.”
Although preliminary, the findings are certain to reignite a debate about the safety of cellphones. A few observational studies have suggested a link between heavy cellphone use and rare brain tumors, but the bulk of the available scientific evidence shows no added risk. Major medical groups have said that cellphones are safe, but some top doctors, including the former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center and prominent neurosurgeons, have urged the use of headsets as a precaution.
Volkow said that the latest research is preliminary and does not address questions about cancer or other heath issues, but it does raise new questions about potential areas of research to better understand the health implications of increased brain activity resulting from cellphone use.
“Unfortunately this particular study does not enlighten us in terms of whether this is detrimental or if it could even be beneficial,” Volkow said. “It just tells us that even though these are weak signals, the human brain is activated by them.”
Most major medical groups, including the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration, have said the existing data on cellphones and health has been reassuring, particularly a major European study released last year by the WHO that found no increased risk of rare brain tumors among cellphone users.
When asked to comment on the latest study, the leading industry trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, released a statement emphasizing recent studies that have shown no elevated cancer risk associated with cellphone use.
“The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the FCC, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects,” said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the trade group.
He added that leading global health groups “all have concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk.”
However, the new research differed from the large observational studies that have been conducted to study cellphone use. In Volkow’s study, the researchers used brain scans to directly measure how the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cellphones affected brain activity.