Home > Health, Technology > Cell Phones, Your Brain, and the Media

Cell Phones, Your Brain, and the Media

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Usually, when a scientific study gets this much media attention, it has something quite impactful to report.

But when the study has nice, media-friendly buzz-words like “radiation” and “brain activity”, you get a firestorm of media coverage. Even if your study doesn’t say all that much.

The study I am referring to is called “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study looked at 47 healthy volunteers; a relatively small study. The researchers took these volunteers and gave them all PET scans on their brains. They had also strapped two cellphones on either side of their head. One cell phone was on, and the other was turned off.

During a 50 minute phone call, they compared the two sides of their brain to see if there was any change in glucose uptake.

What did they find?

Whole-brain metabolism did not differ between on and off conditions. In contrast, metabolism in the region closest to the antenna (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) was significantly higher for on than off conditions (35.7 vs 33.3 μmol/100 g per minute; mean difference, 2.4 [95% confidence interval, 0.67-4.2]; P = .004). The increases were significantly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes both for absolute metabolism (R = 0.95,P < .001) and normalized metabolism (R = 0.89; P < .001). [JAMA]

So basically, whole-brain metabolism was the same whether the phone was on or off. However, in regions close to the phone’s antenna, the metabolism was “significantly higher”. It is important to point out that in this context, “significantly” means statistical significance, not a large increase. In fact, the increase was only about 7%.

Brain imaging physicist Dardo Tomasi of Brookhaven National Laboratory, who co-authored the study, said that’s several times less activity than visual brain regions show during an engaging movie. [Wired]

Ok, so now the important question: what does this mean for our health? Nora Volkow, the study’s lead author commented:

Volkow says it is too early to tell whether this is good or bad for the brain. “Much larger fluctuations in brain activity occur naturally,” says Patrick Haggard at University College London. In fact, being able to increase activity might boost the brain’s connectivity, and could even be useful therapeutically, Volkow suggests. [New Scientist]

So although the study was published as a “Preliminary Communication”, and that the study itself concludes:

This finding is of unknown clinical significance. [JAMA] (emphasis mine)

there is still a large number of news outlets which reported on the study. Why?

Well we know why already. That “unknown” word in the above quote carries a lot of baggage.

Cell phones are the new danger to health, of course. Despite there being no conclusive evidence that cell phones even have the ability to cause cancer, and the fact that even with the explosion of cell phone use in recent years, cancer rates have not increased, people are still scared of their cell phone.

This is thanks to poor media coverage, and a few crackpots out there who are determined to prove that technology is going to destroy us all.

And as a result this small, preliminary study with a result that, while interesting, is completely benign, gets extensive media coverage. Not only that, but some news sites give thinly veiled comments suggesting that the results somehow show that cell phones are dangerous, like this one:

The unusual finding, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is likely to lead to new calls for stricter regulation of radiation emissions from the ubiquitous phones. The government currently assumes the signals have no effects other than a harmless warming of tissues near where they’re held. [The Globe and Mail]

or this one:

Some studies have linked cell phone exposure to an increased risk of brain cancers, but a large study by the World Health Organization was inconclusive. [MSNBC]

Of course they used the word “inconclusive” in the above quote, when it should really read “it showed no correlation”. Scicurious points out that this is probably because “‘inconclusive’ sounds scarier”.

So nobody panic. This study does not show that cell phones are dangerous. It may show that the electric field from the antenna somehow increases metabolism of glucose, but those findings need to be corroborated by other labs. Let’s wait until their findings are duplicated on a larger scale and a mechanism by which this effect happens can be discovered before we decide what, if any, impact this study should have.

  1. February 24, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Ah but it’s sexy! And everyone uses a cell phone! And we must all panic! And now use our Blue Tooth almost exclusively! Or stop using them altogether!

    Ugh. Such crazy alarm for, as you noted, an inconclusive report.

    Thanks for adding calm to the chorus…

    • John T. Osorio
      February 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm

      Thank you for posting some useful information and calming the hype. Nice post and congrats on getting freshly pressed!

  2. February 24, 2011 at 8:34 am

    I don’t care what studies say, that strange metallic headache after a long cellphone conversation is enough for me to make sure I’m not on it too much.

  3. February 24, 2011 at 8:41 am

    This sort of thing really bothers me. The media routinely bastardizes the school system in this country for not having taught math and science adequately enough so that we might compete with the world in these fields, and yet here it is perverting a preliminary innocuous study for it’s own gain. It’s things like this that make people fearful of the sciences, like they all employ wild haired megalomaniacs with perfectly pitched evil laughs, when really it’s the utility of the knowledge that should take center stage. I did not see even one report that mentioned the potential benefits of mild radiation along with the “End of days stuff” that tunes listeners in. Thanks for being honest! Should i feel ridiculous for thanking someone for being honest? I feel like i should…

  4. sabrinaashley
    February 24, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Why do they make things like cell phones such a big deal when the economy is going to hell?

  5. February 24, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Reading this blog may cause heart disease. Well there is no proof of that but SOME think it.

    • February 24, 2011 at 9:02 am

      Haha! That’s awesome!

  6. February 24, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I was the last person I know to get a cell phone. I resisted. (And now, I have no idea why) My point being – I got one much later than anyone else and seldom use it. I got cancer one year and a brain tumor the next. The cancerous tumor was approximately 7 years old and the brain tumor was estimated at 20 – all originating prior to the cell phone acquisition. That should prove something – shouldn’t it? Probably not, other than the media fixates on B.S. to frighten the consumer. I should say, “Don’t be frightened any more! The technologically ignorant can get cancer and brain tumors as easily as the phone geeks.”

  7. February 24, 2011 at 9:31 am

    I do other things everyday that also hurts me. I eat bad food and drink diet soda…..I just can’t help myself. :-)

  8. February 24, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Nothing like a big expensive inconclusive study to determine that more studies are needed!!

  9. February 24, 2011 at 10:19 am

    This happens all the time. I remember when eggs were bad for you to eat. Then they said they were okay to eat. Then they were bad for you. I just wanted them to make up their minds because I wanted to eat breakfast.

  10. February 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

    You know, it’s funny… the media has been banging this same drum for at least 10 years. I remember being 12 or so (I was younger than 13, anyway) and seeing stories on TV saying the same thing. The business of news is capturing interest. Reporters push their own prejudices. With their powers combined, they are Captain Bullshit.

  11. February 24, 2011 at 11:12 am

    No matter what, I don’t like cell phones & texting. Person to person conversations will always be my preference.

  12. February 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    The bottom line is that people who can’t live without cell phones think they are harmless and people who think that cellphones are bad believe that they will fry your brain. Science is secondary.

  13. February 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Can You Hear Me Now?

  14. February 24, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    the only scary thing about cell phones is how dependent we have become on them

  15. February 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    We should accept this if we use cell phones,at least there are no other devices can replace cell phones in our life.

  16. JM
    February 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    I am pretty sure that we will find out whether they are harmful when a newer technology comes along that is not.

  17. February 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I thought this non-issue was put to bed a couple years ago. Unfortunate to see it anywhere, much less JAMA. As a guy who studies brain cancer, the past studies I’m familiar with are largely discounted because there was ridiculous response bias in them. Never mind that though, in the face of the massive upturn in cell phone usage over the past 15 years. Yes brain tumors are on the rise, but this is in parity with population increases, not crazy cell phone stuff.

  18. thefengshuidiva
    February 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    We will all die from over doing something or over eating something…may as well die doing something we enjoy. Cellphone in hand saying good bye to a loved one…if they are so concerned about it then they will have to come up with a cell phone made from a vegetable or fruit. Now that would be healthy…and would not cause disease.

  19. February 24, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    If that’s the case should I stop using cellphone?No way!Even though I seldom use my phone.If I’m gonna die, well we all are.I just have to live my life and enjoy it.(There are people who got tumors who doesn’t even use phones)HAHAHA!Thanks for the info anyway!

  20. February 24, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    I was just talking to my friend about this a few days ago. I DO believe cell phones are harmful in another way: if you’re a person easily dizzy and prone to motion sickness, like me, a touch phone is not ideal. It seems a lot of my friends have been complaining about problems with vertigo and nauseau lately. I really think there’s a connection and there should be a warning on the box that says it may cause dizziness/vertigo for some people. Just a thought.

  21. February 24, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I thought the study was funny because it was inconclusive…why even tell us?! Is that so we can make our own judgement call & they (the gov’t & scientists) can’t/won’t help us…good going. Let’s make our own grown up decision…I personally don’t think it’s a great idea to be attached to the phones 24/7 like the kids are. They even sleep with them…wouldn’t want to miss the latest update from Hollywood or their friends…that’s a little over the top! I don’t think technology should own us…remember why you originally got the phone…to help in matters of emergency, not being at the whims and beck & call of everybody including your employer 24/7. People NEED down time!

  22. February 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    What I really want to know is if there are any pictures of the participants in the study with two cell phones strapped to either side of their head. And where can I find them?

  23. February 24, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    most dangerous effect of handphone is “most of us think they cant live without that” :D

    Dont forget to use earphone

  24. spiritinquire
    February 24, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I came to the same understanding of the study from reading the NYTimes article that you expressed here. The bottom line is that there is some activity being shown, but they don’t know if it’s harmful. I think I kind of missed the media frenzy you’re referring to because I’m very careful about where I read my news. I don’t think the study really says anything. Of course there’s some brain activity near the antenna. There is an interaction of energy fields occurring. The point is, they don’t know what the effects are or if there are any at all.

    There was a time that people didn’t know smoking can cause lung cancer. Now we have studies to show it. However, there are also people who NEVER smoked who get lung cancer. Smoking just significantly increases the risk. Cell phones and brain tumors? Some studies would be good. But for now, I’m going to use a headset when I can, but otherwise not worry about it too much. We’re all going to die at some point, and my cell phone greatly enhances my life.

  25. February 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    i know!! we have become VERY dependent on cell phones! congrats on FP!!

  26. February 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Cell phones ARE deadly. Mostly to people who are driving a vehicle while texting with the phone in a lap to avoid a citation. Or to the pedestrian that the texter doesn’t see.

  27. February 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    cell phones drive me crazy! it gives me headaches.. i’m glad i don’t have a iphone.. phone & internet??… that’ll be bad. i’ll be on it allll day!!

  28. February 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Interesting post. I think that it’s safer to use your phone without distraction (even repeatedly), vs. using one while driving, etc. Prolonged exposure for a single person may (or may not), cause brain cancer and affect one out of thousands, but using one while driving can (and unfortunately, will) wipe-out countless people in one instance.

    Thanks for the info and congrats on the FP!

  29. February 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Really interesting post. I use to love my cell phone, but it’s becoming more of an annoyance then anything. My grandpa always tell me to put in on speaker phone so I don’t get brain cancer, but I’ve never really believed that was possible so thanks for the educated info!:)

  30. February 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I have known a few people that have died from brain tumors. They have done studies that they do cause brain tumors, especially in young people. http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-10318075-247.html. Don’t be so critical of these studies.

  31. humanitarikim
    February 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Something will kill us. Enjoy life. The end.

  32. February 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Science over emotion everytime!

  33. February 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I think the importance of this issue is dependant on brain movement and function. Even foreign language and native language activate different parts of the brain in the speaker. So the part about brain cancer possibly caused by cell phones, I think it can be prevented ahead if we try to “avoid” it IN our brain. Set a priority for the cell phone, sort of. Do I sound too much like emotionless fiction?

  34. February 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for sharing this interesting post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. If you are interested in things that DO affect brain development check out my article on The Education Cafe called Build a Better Brain. http://theeducationcafe.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/grow-a-better-brain/


  35. February 24, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    When it is proved that there is some effect of radio waves on human brain, we ‘d have grown up somuch to the idea that its no longer a concern.


  36. Seven
    February 24, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    7% isn’t significant? I think if anything about my brain changes by 7%, that’s pretty darn significant!

  37. changdeb
    February 25, 2011 at 12:28 am

    not long ago I read that cell phones have the possibilities to help alzheimer patient..not sure whether it’s true or just a mis-translation article. but in my opinion, the true danger of cell phone is when people use it while driving.

  38. February 25, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Most dangerous effect of hand phone and i am not use cell phone..
    Thanks for sharing.

  39. superakh
    February 25, 2011 at 2:47 am

    I read an article the other day on Reuters which spoke about brain activity being diminished closest to the part where we hold our cell phones.. the link to the article is below.


    Btw, nice article :)

  40. February 25, 2011 at 3:15 am

    You’ve made me look at my cellphone in a whole new way! I do get annoyed by it sometimes. I think that too much of anything is a bad thing, so the same should go for cellphones. Congratz on being on FP!

  41. February 25, 2011 at 3:21 am

    I play on my iphone all the time to avoid talking to people at certain “gatherings”. I had worried that I was being anti-social but it’s just that some folks make it so difficult to have a chat. My phone’s more user-friendly. Sigh, I guess should add brain tumors alongside my worries about how anti-social my phone is making me to real people standing next to me. It’s fine if they are at the other end of the phone. Great post and congrats on being FP! K

  42. February 25, 2011 at 3:34 am

    Most scientific studies are theories. It will take years of research and studies before the facts and findings becomes a true conclusion just like medical studies and other scientific findings. Electro Magnetic Fields evolves around us everyday of our life, especially today’s modern technologies. I do not have to mention them here… it will take a long list of things and modern gadgets that you used and encounter everyday, 24 hrs a day!

  43. February 25, 2011 at 3:35 am

    This is interesting i remember reading an article a month or so back about radiation levels in phone


    that’s the sum up from the article


    theirs the article

    let me know what you think :)

  44. February 25, 2011 at 4:01 am

    All “studies” are inconclusive.

  45. February 25, 2011 at 5:24 am

    I will surely take care now… thanks for this wonderful and useful post.

  46. February 25, 2011 at 6:05 am

    I’m so sick of all these studies. My mother survived cancer for 28 years. She took care of herself, ate right and still ended up sick. It’s the environment-gene combo. I enjoyed reading your blog.

  47. Maria
    February 25, 2011 at 7:21 am

    Glad you created this post as previously I’d only heard of the study and in very vague terms. I’ve left cell phone usage with a headache at times but I believe that has far more to do with the human on the other end and the discussion itself as opposed to a cell phone or radiation levels. *laugh*

    Thnx again. Looking forward to your next posting.

  48. Kim
    February 25, 2011 at 7:26 am

    It’s odd that most of the people couldn’t live with a mobile phone anymore.

  49. February 25, 2011 at 7:26 am

    I’m so glad you posted this because just yesterday, after I read the headline, ‘Study Shows Cell Phones May Alter Brain Activity’ I could literally feel the dark red spot in my brain that correlated with the dark red spot they showed on their brain activity chart. Hypochondriac? Why no, why do you ask? Anyway, my brain feels much more yellow now. Thanks!

  50. Jennifer
    February 25, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Great evaluation of this research article. I appreciate your unbiased opinions and captivating writing style.

  51. February 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

    I hate my cell phone, it cuts out, the battery doesn’t last more than a couple of days, and it’s not a smart phone. I think I can do more damage to this thing than it ever will to me .

  52. February 25, 2011 at 11:21 am

    I think I am the only person on Earth without a cell phone at this point.

  53. Ali
    February 25, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Well written Write-up. Glad i am able yo locate a site with some knowledge plus a great writing style.
    You keep publishing and i will continue to Keep browsing

    Thanks Again

  54. February 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    i got headaches after use cell phone :-(

    Nice Home

  55. February 27, 2011 at 4:57 am

    I found this topic quite interesting as they really don’t know if its harmful or not. Increased brain activity could be a good thing thing for us.

  56. February 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I think no matter what the damages were nobody would stop using a mobile phone as there such a common way of life an we all depend on them, not to mention newer an better phones come out to get peoples attention, mobile phones are the best invention :)

  57. February 28, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Cell phones might be the next smoking if we don’t watch out.

  58. mia j
    March 1, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Can anyone imagine what its going to be like in 5, 10, 15 years? With technology speeding up, I can only wonder what effect cell phones will have on us in the future.

  59. March 3, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Whatever the result is, we can’t stop using cellphones. For some it’s just a communication tool but for some it is what makes them feel secure and connected.

  60. March 8, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I heard candles cause cancer today. I’ve learned to just start laughing a lot of it off. The one study that seems crazy that I just can’t seem to laugh off though is the case of the laptop and the sperm. I’ve read so many places that men who keep their laptops on their laps for prolonged periods of time have a lower sperm count. I often remind my husband to remember his sperm count when he does this. True or not, I can’t shake that one!

  61. April 1, 2011 at 3:11 am

    Thank You for post. As other say, over dependence on cell phone can be more dangerous to our emotional health as other factors. :-(

  62. A Broom of Her Own
    April 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I know the studies are inconclusive. But it does give me the heebie jeebies when having my cell on the counter near my radio makes the radio occasionally go static. It makes me wonder what’s going on when the cell is near my ear. It makes me think I should mimic the teenagers in my house and do less talking and more texting.

  63. April 7, 2011 at 12:49 am

    No matter what, I don’t like cell phones & texting. Person to person conversations will always be my preference.

  1. February 24, 2011 at 11:34 am
  2. February 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm
  3. February 25, 2011 at 2:17 am
  4. February 25, 2011 at 3:41 am
  5. February 25, 2011 at 4:18 am
  6. March 7, 2011 at 9:55 am
  7. March 21, 2011 at 10:16 am

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