Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) emitted by wireless communication devices such as mobile phones can have an adverse effect on cognitive functions (memory) of the specific brain regions exposed during the device’s use. These are the findings of a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, involving about 700 adolescents in Switzerland.
This study follows up a report published in the scientific journal Environment International in 2015 that investigated whether memory performance in adolescents is affected by RF-EMF from the use of a wireless device or by the wireless device use itself due to non-radiation related factors in that context. These are the world’s first epidemiological studies to estimate cumulative RF-EMF brain dose in adolescents.
Martin Röösli, Head of Environmental Exposures and Health at Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, and colleagues conducted the present study to follow-up their previous results using a new study population, dose estimation, and approach to controlling for confounding from media usage itself.
The rapid evolution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has caused an increase in manmade exposure to RF-EMF. However, still, there is no information on the health effects of RF-EMF. The brain is heavily exposed while calling with a cordless phone or mobile so, neurological functions are of special concern.
Present-day adolescents will likely have a higher cumulative lifetime exposure to RF-EMF, and the developing brain might be particularly susceptible to RF-EMF–induced alterations up to 15 years of age.
For the study, RF-EMF brain dose for each participant was modeled. Multivariable linear regression models were fitted on verbal and figural memory score changes over 1 y and on estimated cumulative brain dose and RF-EMF related and unrelated media usage (n= 669–676). Because of the hemispheric lateralization of memory, the researchers conducted a laterality analysis for phone call ear preference. To control for the confounding of media use behaviors, a stratified analysis for different media usage groups was also conducted.
- The authors found a decreased figural memory scores in association with an interquartile range (IQR) increase in estimated cumulative RF-EMF brain dose scores: −0:22 (95% CI: −0:47, 0.03; IQR: 953 mJ=kg per day) in the whole sample, −0:39 (95% CI: −0:67, −0:10; IQR: 953 mJ=kg per day) in right-side users (n= 532), and −0:26 (95% CI: −0:42, −0:10; IQR: 341 mJ=kg per day) when recorded network operator data were used for RF-EMF dose estimation (n= 274).
- Other aspects of wireless communication use, such as sending text messages, playing games or browsing the Internet cause only marginal RF-EMF exposure to the brain and were not associated with the development of memory performance.
Figural memory is mainly located in the right brain hemisphere and association with RF-EMF was more pronounced in adolescents using the mobile phone on the right side of the head. “This may suggest that indeed RF-EMF absorbed by the brain is responsible for the observed associations,” said Dr. Röösli.
“A unique feature of this study is the use of objectively collected mobile phone user data from mobile phone operators,” said Röösli. He emphasized that further research is needed to rule out the influence of other factors. “For instance, the study results could have been affected by puberty, which affects both mobile phone use and the participant’s cognitive and behavioral state.”
The potential effect of RF-EMF exposure to the brain is a relatively new field of scientific inquiry. “It is not yet clear how RF-EMF could potentially affect brain processes or how relevant our findings are in the long-term,” said Röösli. “Potential risks to the brain can be minimized by using headphones or the loudspeaker while calling, in particular when network quality is low and the mobile phone is functioning at maximum power.
“Our findings for a cohort of Swiss adolescents require confirmation in other populations but suggest a potential adverse effect of RFEMF brain dose on cognitive functions that involve brain regions mostly exposed during mobile phone use, concluded the authors.
For further information log on to https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP2427