Cell Phones Are Good for You!

The question of whether the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones is a risk factor for human disease, especially brain cancer, has been debated and studied at length. There are committed partisans on both sides, but the research is inconsistent and incomplete. A couple of nice summaries and discussion of the issue and the research can be found at the National Cancer Institute and The Skeptics Dictionary. Overall, it seems unlikely to me that cell phone usage represents a significant risk, but the issue has not been decided beyond all reasonable doubt.

However, a recent study has added a bit of fun to the discussion by claiming cell phone radiation may prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease! According to news articles about the study:

“The results showed that:

Exposure started when they were young adults, ie before showing signs of memory impairment, appeared to protect the Alzheimer’s mice from becoming cognitively impaired.

Exposed older Alzheimer’s mice performed as well on tests measuring memory and thinking skills as normal older mice without dementia.

When older, previously unexposed Alzheimer’s mice already showing memory problems were exposed to the electromagnetic field, their memory impairment vanished.

Normal mice exposed to the electromagnetic waves for several months showed above normal memory performance.”

The authors seem quite optimistic about the applicability of the results to human disease:

“Since we selected electromagnetic parameters that were identical to human cell phone use and tested mice in a task closely analogous to a human memory test, we believe our findings could have considerable relevance to humans.”

“Arendash and colleagues concluded that electromagnetic field exposure could be an effective, drug-free, non-invasive way to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease in humans.”

“The cognitive benefits of long-term electromagnetic exposure are real, because we saw them in both protection- and treatment-based experiments involving Alzheimer’s mice, as well as in normal mice.”

It should come as no surprise that I don’t share this enthusiasm. The results are certainly interesting, but this is precisely the sort of small, animal model study that the media loves to extrapolate wildly from, contributing to the public perception that science is constantly finding phony “miracle cures” and that scientific research results cannot be trusted. The problem, as I’ve argued before, is not with science but with individuals, scientists and others, who treat such curious and preliminary results with excessive enthusiasm.

Talking about a “effective, drug-free, non-invasive way to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease” based on exposing mice to EM in the lab and then looking at their behavior and their brains is indefensible. Replication in other laboratories, further elucidation of possible mechanisms, study of safety concerns, and the whole labyrinth of procedures in human subjects to assess safety and efficacy are needed, years of work, before such speculations ought to be publically entertained. I’ve often pointed out that being part of mainstream science and medicine does not, alas, immunize one against some of the lapses in critical thinking often associated with CAM, and this provides another example.

Still, it will be interesting, though, to see what reaction this study generates in the alternative medicine community. I suspect those enamored of “natural” medicine will reject as unholy any such technological methods regardless of whether they ultimately prove useful. I also suspect that if the exact same study came out only “electromagnetic radiation” was replaced throughout with the name of an herb or traditional energy therapy, such a study would be nearly universally proclaimed as justification for immediate use of the agent or procedure in  human clinical practice. This is, after all, exactly the sort of evidence proponents of “Evidence-Based Alternative Medicine” routinely rely on.

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