Electromagnetic Radiation & the Brain

The media loves a good story about mobile phones and brain tumours, and I myself have seen to have notices a large increase in brain tumours in people relatively young in the course of my career. Being and neuropsychologist and neuroscientist I am prone to immediately think when I have a series of headaches it must be a brain tumour :), but what does the science really say about the relationship?

A study in 2017 in Military Medical Research by Zhi and colleagues reviewed the latest advances in the effects of microwave radiation on brains. Of concern, that report that learning and memory is very vulnerable to EMR, and since the wide spread use of mobile phones, our brains are now getting very close up exposure it previously wasn’t getting. They cite research showing affects on sleep as well as learning and memory. Microwaves in our home and workplace generally originate from mobile phones, cordless phones, microwave ovens, bluetooth devices, and wireless local area networks. There have been some studies publish finding a correlation between mobile usage and brain tumours, however many studies have not found this relationship. The vast majority of studies I reviewed were done with mice over 30 days or less exposure, with very limited exposure per day.

The problem with all research is that mobile phone usage is in its infancy, making longer-term studies on humans very difficult. Widespread mobile use has only been around for less than 20 years, and even then most of us still used the home or work phone when making longer calls due to the initial high costs of calls. I would suggest that since the lower fees, and being able to talk all you like with the current ‘mega plans’, that we could now potentially see a much sharper rise in the relationship. Likewise with the advent of smart phones and using your phone as a music and video streamer, the increase in EMR to ones whole body will have increased dramatically. As with the research into smoking and cancer, the results will not occur overnight, but are likely to require a build-up over many years and decades.  We need research with human with over 10 year exposure to state anything definitive about the effects of mobile phone radiation on the brain.

Even more concerning are the people who quote rat data about brain tumours stating mobiles are safe, often fail to look further than tumours. EMR is likely to result in cognitive based deficits based on possible electrical and neuro-chemical changes in the brain, much more likely than it is to create an actual tumour, and certainly likely prior to having the symptoms of a brain tumour. A study by Aboul Ezz in 2013 found that daily exposure to EMR for only a period of a month created changes in neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the hippocampus, hypothalamus, midbrain and medulla oblongata of adult rats.

Here are some tips to reduce your exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

  1. Invest in a hands-free device if you often need to make long calls. You are exposed to much higher levels of electromagnetic radiation if you are in close proximity to your device, so using a hands-free device will help to eliminate some of the electromagnetic radiation from your phone.
  2. Limit electronics usage in children and adolescents. Of course, given the possible impacts that mobile phone use can have on your cognitive functioning and health, the advice to reduce electronics usage is applicable to all. However, children and adolescents whose brains are not yet fully developed are particularly susceptible to EMR, and limiting electronics usage will go a long way in reducing their exposure to EMR as well as preventing other health-related consequences of spending too much time on electronic devices.
  3. Place your mobile phone far away from your bed. As we turn to our phones to set our morning alarms, many of us place them close to or even on our beds to ensure that we can hear the alarm in the morning. If you are concerned about the effect of EMR on your brain, it is advisable to move your phone to another location overnight, such as on the other side of your room. Likewise, when using other electronic appliances in your home such as a microwave, keep a distance while you wait, and do not stand near or in front of the appliance.
  4. Monitor your electronics usage. For many people, our devices have become an indispensable part of our lives, from the moment we wake up to when we go to bed. More alarmingly, many of us fail to realise the length of time we actually spend on our phones. To monitor your electronics usage, you may choose to download an app that allows you to view the amount of time you are spending on your device, or your device may come with this app pre-installed. Setting and working towards reducing screen time is not only helpful in reducing EMR but will bring benefits to all aspects of your life.
  5. Switch off or turn on ‘Airplane Mode’ on your devices when not in use. For example, if you only use your laptop and tablet using working hours, switch them off afterwards so that you are not being exposed to unnecessary radiation outside those hours.
  6. Place the router away from where you spend your time the most. Most families today have Wi-Fi routers in the home, and they are incredibly convenient as they allow you to access the Internet from any corner of the house, but the location of the router is something you may want to consider. Avoid placing the router in areas of the house you and your family spend a lot of time in (eg. Living room, bedroom), and preferably place it in a corner where you usually will not go close to.