The rapid rise of information and communication technologies in our daily lives comes with increased exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF). The most common source of exposure to the brain is when a cell phone is held close to the head.
Now a new Swiss study finds that RF-EMF may harm memory performance in the specific brain regions exposed while a person is talking on a cell phone. The study, which involved nearly 700 adolescents in Switzerland, is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
While several studies have been conducted to determine potential health effects related to RF-EMF, the results have remained inconclusive.
For the current study, scientists led by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) investigated the relationship between exposure to RF-EMF from wireless communication devices and memory performance in nearly 700 adolescents over the course of one year. Participants, aged 12 to 17 years, were recruited from 7th to 9th public school grades in urban and rural areas of Swiss-German speaking Switzerland.
The study follows up a 2015 report published in the scientific journal Environment International, but now with twice the sample size as well as more current information on the absorption of RF-EMF in adolescent brains during different types of wireless communication device use. These studies are the first epidemiological reports to estimate cumulative RF-EMF brain dose in adolescents.
The findings show that cumulative RF-EMF brain exposure from cell phone use over one year may have a negative effect on the development of figural memory performance in adolescents. This confirms the previous results published in 2015.
Figural memory is primarily located in the right brain hemisphere, and association with RF-EMF was more pronounced in teens who held the mobile phone to the right side of the head.
“This may suggest that indeed RF-EMF absorbed by the brain is responsible for the observed associations.” said Martin Röösli, Ph.D., head of environmental exposures and health at Swiss TPH.
Other types of common 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 linked to memory performance.
“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 more 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 effects 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,” Röösli said. “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.”