Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cell phones fight Alzheimer’s? Maybe, in genetically modified mice.

A fascinating new study finds that exposure to cell phone radiation appears to halt, and even repair, the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease on mouse’s brains and memory. Research exposed 96 mice genetically altered to develop Alzheimer’s disease to the radiation for two hours daily, for seven to nine months. When the unfortunate critters had their brains examined, surprised researchers found that the sticky substance responsible for Alzheimer’s had receded. Memory tests confirmed that many of the aged, genetically cursed mice had recall that was equivalent to a healthy mouse. Good news if you’re a mobile-addicted mouse.

None of this means that we should attempt to fry our brains to avoid forgetfulness. The primary health concern from cell phones (other than crashing while driving), has been risk of brain tumors. Many governments, both in the EU and US, are considering whether to paste brain tumor warnings on cell phones. So what’s the bottom line? It remains unclear.

Most studies of the subject are small, and retrospective in nature. In other words they compare a relatively small number of people who frequently use cell phones to another, relatively similar group that doesn’t use them, and then compares brain cancer or tumor risks. A couple of reasons this is less than satisfactory: Brain tumors are rare events, so ideally you’d be looking at ten’s or even hundred’s of thousands of people so you could have statistical confidence in your conclusions. This is not feasible. And tumors, especially malignant ones, can be notoriously slow growing. So while you’d like to follow phone users for multiple decades, this is also difficult and expensive. Finally, since you are looking for possible harms, it’s not ethical to conduct true randomized controlled trials (the gold standard).

The best we have are reviews of the many small studies that are out there, the two most recent of which are reviewed here. A review from October 2009 of 23 papers that included some 38,000 phone users found: Overall, “ever users” had no more risk of developing tumors than “rarely or never users.” Just reviewing studies that used some form of “blinding” (not telling brain tumor patients that you are studying cell phone usage, for example) resulted in an 18 percent increased risk of tumors among phone users, but reviewing un-blinded studies resulted in a protective effect (fewer tumors among cell phone users.) A second review published the previous month looked at 46 studies conducted in 10 countries published over the past 10 years and found no increased among users. The authors did complain about the generally poor quality, small size, and short duration of the paper they had to work with, however.

So is it time to toss the mobile, or label it a tumor promoter? Probably not, based on current evidence. But if you are a risk-averse person, it’s worth considering the use of a hands-free device which mitigate any theoretical risks to the grey matter.

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