February 09, 2010

Mobile Phones' Impact on Health

Mobile phones have drastically transformed our lives. Also known as cellular phones or cell phones, these gadgets not only incorporate a phone, as the name suggests, but also a lot of other technologically advanced features. They include a camera, a sound recorder cum music system, a Bluetooth device and many more depending on the model and the maker of the phone. They are called mobile phones since they can be used while on the move.

A mobile phone maintains a two way (transmit and receive) communication with the nearby tower within a cell. Even when you are not talking on your mobile, it is constantly in touch with its ‘cell’. A cell may be thought of as the operational unit of a ‘base station’. A city or area may be likened to a bee hive, each hexagon representing a ‘cell’ having its own tower. As you move from one honeycomb to other, your mobile will change contact from one tower to another (another cell).

Cell phones radiate high frequency (hence, microwave, as wavelength is inversely proportional to the frequency) electromagnetic radiation as a means of communication. One could easily demonstrate this electromagnetic emanation by putting a mobile flashing sticker close to a phone when it’s being used. This radiation can pierce our body tissues, particularly the head. But they could also microwave our scrotum if we keep them inside our pant pocket, as the phone is constantly in touch with the tower and emitting radiation unceasingly.

The rapidly alternating electromagnetic field makes the polar molecules in our body move back and forth, as a tiny magnetic compass would move if the external magnetic field was allowed to change. This molecular movement results in heating of the tissues. Scientists were curious if this could harm us.

Previously, it was thought that they could cause brain cancer but it was later found out that there was no significant relationship. There were some unconfirmed reports suggesting an association between mobile phone usage and an increase in the incidence of acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor of auditory nerve. The thermal effects arising out of the to-and fro effects of the polar molecules could give rise to the increased production of a class of proteins, called ‘heat shock proteins’ or stress proteins.

Some drugs (like glucocorticoids, estrogen and progesterone) enter inside the cells where they combine with molecules called receptors, in the cytosol. This drug-receptor complex then translocates to the nucleus and commands the DNA into producing protein molecules by transcription. The resulting proteins typically account for the actions of these steroidal drugs. Heat shock proteins (like Hsp90) cover the DNA binding domain of the cytosolic receptors, preventing interaction with the DNA. When a steroid molecule attaches with the receptor, a conformational change occurs in the receptor releasing the Hsp, thereby freeing the DNA binding domain. Naturally, more stress proteins would mean more blocking of steroid receptors.

Studies have also shown that microwave radiation at doses considered harmless caused DNA damage after two hours of exposure. All these led authorities in some countries advice Bluetooth usage and to keep your head away from your mobile. Read the next few lines if you really should keep your head away!

Having said all those, let me state that the WHO, the American Cancer Society and the National Institute of Health have concluded that there was no scientific evidence that cell phone use had any adverse health risks.

A University of South Florida research team wanted to find out any association of Alzheimer’s disease with cell phone usage. In the past, several studies have hinted at a possible increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in humans with low frequency electromagnetic radiation, such mains power line frequency. But as they went on with their research, they were surprised at what they saw.

Electromagnetic mobile phone radiation and Alzheimer's in miceThey employed about 100 mice and subjected them to a daily radiation of 1 hour by an antenna that was kept in the center of the cage as shown. Some of these mice were 2 month old, which were genetically programmed to develop Alzheimer's disease like symptoms and signs with age; and some 4 month old, which already had the symptoms. They also placed normal healthy mice in the same cage. The electromagnetic field was made to emulate the radiation received by a man as he talked on his mobile phone and the wavelength was the same as that of the mobile phones. The mice’s memory was checked by maze tests.

They were astonished to find that the electromagnetic field (EMF) not only boosted memory in both healthy and transgenic mice (compared to other mice who did not receive radiation) but also they actually reversed symptoms of Alzheimer’s. EMF seemed to break up tell-tale beta-amyloid plaques, a histopathologic marker of Alzheimer’s disease in mice which already expressed them. There was no evidence of increased tumour/cancer formation, DNA damage or behavioral changes.

While what exactly cleared the plaques was not certain, but to quote Gary Arendash of the University of Southern Florida: "One thing is clear, however -- the cognitive benefits of long-term electromagnetic exposure are real”. Arendash also wondered if the preferential use of one of our ears in holding the phone could have asymmetric outcomes in the brain in terms of the plaques. He also observes: "It might also be useful in traumatic brain injury, which is also characterised by plaques, or just to improve cognitive performance”

While it’s too premature to use your phone too close to your head to get a boost in your exams in the near future, its possible use as a “nootropic” is certainly encouraging.

Mobile phones have a lot of other usable paraphernalia, some of which I pointed earlier. These features and the availability of inexpensive high-efficiency light emitting diodes (LEDs) inspired Breslauer et al to construct a microscope that would be helpful in developing countries.

They have developed a high-resolution microscope attachment that is meant for camera- mobile phones as microscopesphones (picture on the left; click to enlarge). Their microscope can capture colour images of the malignant malaria causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum, red blood cells sickling in peripheral blood smear in homozygous sickle cell anemia (hemoglobin SS ) using brightfield microscopy. When fluorescence microscopy was performed with the sputum of tuberculosis patients using Auramine-O stain, the device captured Mycobacterium tuberculosis as well. The resolution was sufficient for the identification of single TB bacterium. The contraption was also good enough to highlight the rod shaped morphology of the acid-fast aerobic bacteria. In addition, epidemiological studies could be easily performed given that the individual mobile cells had their own identification codes and was under GPS location monitoring.

Thus, we can create a cheap and efficient brightfield and fluorescent microscope out of a simple mobile phone (they used Nokia N73 camera phones, equipped with a 3.2 megapixel CMOS camera) and some easy to obtain components. To end up, there seems to be more to cheer than fear.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:
Gary W. Arendash, Juan Sanchez-Ramos, Takashi Mori, Malgorzata Mamcar, Xiaoyang Lin, Melissa Runfeldt, Li Wang, Guixin Zhang, Vasyl Sava, Jun Tan, & Chuanhai Cao (2010). Electromagnetic Field Treatment Protects Against and Reverses Cognitive Impairment in Alzheimer's Disease Mice Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 19, 191-210

Breslauer DN, Maamari RN, Switz NA, Lam WA, Fletcher DA (2009) Mobile Phone Based Clinical Microscopy for Global Health Applications. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6320. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006320

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