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Your Call: How Are Cell Phones Affecting The Brain?

Published: Feb 23, 2011 Filed under: Social Affairs Views: 1,769
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Cell phone brain problem
A study published in tomorrow’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms what researchers have long suspected: that long conversations on cell phones affect parts of your brain. Trouble is, not even the study’s authors, the National Institute of Health, know how the calls affect you — just that they light up a significant chunk of your gray matter near the phone.

“We don’t know whether this is detrimental or whether it could have some potential beneficial effects. We don’t know one way or the other,” lead author Dr. Nora Volkow told HealthDay.

Potential beneficial effects? Well, yes. All the study found when it tracked 47 mobile-toting participants for one year was this: brain metabolism in a small area nearest the antenna was 7% higher when they were on a 50-minute call. So cell phones boost brain activity. (Specifically, they raise glucose levels.) Doesn’t sound so bad when put like that, does it? For all we know, blasting your brain with focused radio waves could be the mental equivalent of going to the gym. Glucose levels rise with just about any complex brain activity. For comparison, that 7% metabolism boost is less than the amount of energy it takes to process images via your eyes.

Of course, for all we know, the long-term effects could be pretty scary. Tumor cells need a lot of glucose, too. But that may be no more than coincidence. Researchers were careful to tiptoe around the C-word. And with good reason: as Ars Technica points out, in biology, there is absolutely no known mechanism that could lead from low-energy, long-wavelength radiation to cancer. A giant, 13-nation study begun in 2000 still hasn't found any proof linking the two. Cell phone users, science is on your side — for now.

Bottom line: we know relatively little about brain science and even less about cell phone use. Decades of further study is going to be needed for a definitive answer. We’ve all heard anecdotes from friends about how calls give them headaches, or a buzzing sensation. They could be right, or they could be hypochondriacs. Maybe cell phones affect each brain differently. At the moment, there’s just no way of telling.

If you’re concerned, be like Dr. Volkow — who told TIME that she’s started using a $5 headset so she doesn’t have to hold her phone to her ear any more. “Maybe at the end of the day cell phones aren’t damaging,” she said. “But it’s only $5.”



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, DireTube.com or Refresh Media P.L.C.

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