Could cell phones prevent Alzheimer’s, boost memory?

Everything bad really can be good for you, as science writer
Steven Johnson might say.

We’ve all repeatedly heard the claims that cell phone
radiation can cause brain cancer and other ailments; although many major
medical groups have concluded that the risk of tumors is minimal or
nonexistent, concerns about cell phones still abound among many in both the
medical community and the general public.

But a new study, appearing today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggests that cell phone radiation might forestall or
prevent dementia—and could improve memory in the healthy.

Researchers from the University of South Florida, led by Gary Arendash and Chuanhai
, ran a study of 96 mice, including both healthy animals and ones
genetically programmed to develop an Alzheimer’s-like condition. After being
exposed to a cell-phone signal for two hours a day for seven to nine months (as seen in the photo below),
the animals were put through a standard water-maze memory test. The results surprised
even the scientists: Rather than doing harm, the radiation exposure appeared to
stave off cognitive decline in young Alzheimer’s mice, reverse impairments in
older Alzheimer’s mice already showing memory problems, and even boost the
memories of normal mice.

Mice cell

The causes for the changes remain murky. After several
months of exposure, only the Alzheimer’s mice showed increases in brain
temperature, the scientists found. They speculate that the slight rise might
help brain cells release and then flush out beta-amyloid protein, which in its
toxic form is widely believed to contribute to the damage and neuron death seen
in Alzheimer’s. The memory boost in healthy animals, on the other hand, might
be because radiation promotes greater blood flow and energy metabolism in the
brain, the researchers suggest.

If cell phone radiation has the same effects on people, it could
someday lead to a remarkably simple, inexpensive, and non-invasive treatment
for Alzheimer’s. It will take substantial additional research to get to this
point, however, including repeating the results with larger numbers of mice and
testing other animal species to see if they react in the same way. (Part of the
reason the debate over cell phone use has been so contentious is that studies
in the area have often proven difficult to reproduce.)

Even promising, repeatable follow-up results are no
guarantee, as many potential Alzheimer’s treatments that showed success in
animal studies have fizzled in human trials. Still, Arendash and his colleagues
are busy assessing the frequency, intensity, and length of exposure that
provide the most mouse-brain benefits to pave the way for such future testing.

If the research does pan out, it’s also important to note
that cell phone users would be unlikely to see protective effects from typical
use. The study showed beneficial effects only after sustained long-term
exposure—years, when translated into human terms. Few people receive such an
intense dose on consistent basis, especially as voice calls increasingly give
way to text messaging, e-mail and mobile Web browsing that keep phones farther
away from the head.

As the results are still extremely preliminary, the
researchers caution people not to change their cell phone habits based on this new
work. But they do also have some reassuring news about the safety of cell phone
radiation. Autopsies of the mice studied found no abnormal brain growths or
organ damage, adding to the evidence that long-term exposure to cell phones has
few harmful side effects and does not increase the risk of brain cancers.

—Aalok Mehta

© Photo courtesy of University of South Florida

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