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Spending fifty minutes a day with a cell phone held close to your head increases glucose consumption in the areas of the brain closest to the device, Dr. Nora Volkow of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) explained

Latest Study Results Don't Resolve Old Questions About Cell Phones and Brain Cancer, However

The study was explained to reporters Tuesday, 22 February 2011, after publication of her team's findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Using a technique known as positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, Dr. Volkow and colleagues tested the effects of cell phones on the brains of 47 volunteers, producing a visual image of changes in brain activity induced by the electromagnetic fields of the phones. The NIH researchers found that cell phones had no effect on the activity of the brain as a whole, but they significantly increased metabolism in the areas of the brain closest to the cell phone antenna. The effect occurred whether the cell phone was turned on or off.

Other researchers had already discovered that the effects of cell phones on the brain are cumulative. The longer you use a cell phone, the more energy the brain absorbs. The thicker your skull, the less energy your brain absorbs.

Japanese researchers funded by Mitsubishi Corporation, a maker of cell phones, found that using a cell phone activates an "insignificant" number of genes in cells in the brain to an "insignificant" extent, although what the researchers defined as "insignificant" is actually about 1 per cent.

To put that in perspective, the difference in gene activation between a human being and a bonobo monkey is also about 1 per cent. However, the Japanese researchers did not find that cell phone radiation activated the specific genes involved in cancer. Other studies, however, suggest there may in fact be a relationship between cell phone radio frequency radiation and brain cancer.

What's the Evidence for Cell Phone Radiation as a Cause of Brain Cancer?

When Americans set out to follow and compare future brain cancer rates in a group of cell phone users compared with a group of people who did not use cell phones, their research was stopped by court order, after suit by cell phone interests. The problem with other studies has been that cell phones simply have not been around long enough to know for sure that they cause brain cancers.

That's because most brain cancers take between 25 and 40 years to grow large enough to be detected. Once the tumor is causing obvious problems, death usually comes quickly, but the cancer cells were in the brain decades earlier.

Anything that accelerates the metabolism of brain tissue would also accelerate the growth of brain cancer. But do cell phones accelerate the growth of brain cancer?

Interestingly, other studies funded by cell phone makers even show that cell phone use reduces the risk of brain cancer. But the majority of backward-looking studies comparing cell phone users with people who did not use cell phones found 200 to 600 per cent greater risk of brain cancer, although not to a statistical certainty.

Older, analog phones caused much more cancer than new, digital phones. But the overall cancer rates even in the 27 studies in the medical literature are so low (about 0.1 to 0.2 per cent of the total population), that scientists can't tell for sure from the data they have.

Do you need to fear brain cancer if you use a cell phone? Even if the worst case findings are right, you risk of ever developing brain cancer might go up from 1 in 1000 to 1 in 150, over the entire course of your life, many years after you first start using the cell phone, if the cell phone is the primary cause of the disease.

  • Sekijima M, Takeda H, Yasunaga K, Sakuma N, Hirose H, Nojima T, Miyakoshi J. 2-GHz band CW and W-CDMA modulated radiofrequency fields have no significant effect on cell proliferation and gene expression profile in human cells. J Radiat Res (Tokyo). 2010, 51(3):277-84. Epub 2010 Mar 9
  • Volkow, ND, et al. Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation on Brain Glucose Metabolism. JAMA. 2011,305(8):808-813