Do Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer’s?

Scientific studies are not meant to be amusing, but I laughed out loud when I heard about this one. After all the concern about possible adverse health effects from cell phone use, this study tells us cell phone use can prevent Alzheimer’s, treat Alzheimer’s, and even improve cognitive function in healthy users.

They studied transgenic mice programmed by their genes to develop Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairment; they used a group of non-transgenic littermates as controls. For an hour twice daily over several months they exposed the entire mouse cage to EMF comparable to what is emitted by cell phones. They tested cognitive function with maze tests and other tasks that are thought to measure the same things as human tests of cognitive function. The authors claim to have found striking evidence for both protective and disease-reversing effects.

EMF exposure was found to have cognitive-protective and cognitive-enhancing effects in both the normal mice and the Alzheimer’s-prone mice compared to non-EMF-exposed controls. EMF exposure raised body temperature and brain temperature by about one degree Centigrade. It also reduced the deposition of beta amyloid in the brain. Beta amyloid deposits are a pathognomonic finding in Alzheimer’s, although it is not clear whether they are a cause or a result of the disease. EMF exposure also increases cerebral blood flow and glucose utilization. It does not appear to increase oxidative stress.

This doesn’t mean we will all be smarter if we spend more time talking on our cell phones. It is a small preliminary trial that has no clinical implications as yet. It has not been replicated… although there is one intriguing epidemiologic study associating heavy cell phone use with better performance on a word interference test. Mice and humans may respond differently. Whole body exposure may not be comparable to exposure from typical cell phone use. I question whether typical cell phone use would raise brain temperature that much.

If temperature is important, are patients with elevated temperatures from other causes less susceptible to Alzheimer’s? Could supplying heat by other means work as well? Are sauna users less likely to develop Alzheimer’s? Would an electric blanket have a greater effect than a cell phone?

As cell phone use goes up in a community, does the prevalence of Alzheimer’s drop? Is the overall prevalence of Alzheimer’s greater today than it was before the invention of cell phones? If we found that cell phone users were less likely to have Alzheimer’s, that might only mean that demented people are not as capable of understanding how to use cell phones.

It’s way too early to speculate. Nevertheless, this study could be very useful as an arguing point. When technophobes and Luddites worry about possible dangers of cell phones, we can point to this as evidence of health benefits. Even if cell phones did cause a slight increase in brain cancers (the current weight of evidence indicates they don’t), at least some brain cancers are curable; Alzheimer’s is not.

Cell phone advertisers might want to incorporate these findings into new commercials. “Can you hear me now?” “Can you remember who I am?”

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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