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Monday, April 16, 2012

Cell phones and brain development

Hugh Taylor and his colleagues from Yale University reported that cell phone usage during pregnancy affected the brain development of baby mice. I have to say, I’m not convinced.

The researchers attached silenced cell phones to the cages of 33 pregnant mice and left them there for their entire pregnancies (17 days). 42 pregnant mouse controls had deactivated phones attached to their cages. Their combined 161 offspring (82 from exposed moms, 79 from controls) were tested at 8, 12, 16 weeks to see how much time they spent exploring novel objects, how much anxiety they felt and how hyperactive they were.  In case you’re wondering, as I was, how you can tell if a mouse is anxious, you watch how long it’s willing to stay in a lighted compartment. Hyperactivity can be judged by counting the transitions from one compartment to the next.

Cell phone-exposed babies had slightly less anxiety but spent less time exploring new objects, which the authors suggest was due to having poorer memories. They also exhibited more hyperactivity than the controls. In addition, there were some slight differences in neuronal activity between exposed baby mice and controls.

Before you throw away your cell phone and start communicating by semaphore, here are a few things to consider.  First and foremost, the authors never actually measured the amount of radiation the mice were receiving.  As Andrew Wood of the Australian Centre for Radiofrequency Bioeffects Research noted, the phones might have been putting out next to no radiation if they were simply left on but not used. In that case, the entire suite of results is nothing but an artifact. That is, the researchers weren’t measuring what they thought they were measuring.

Even if the baby mice were exposed to radiofrequency radiation and it was responsible for their behavior, that still might not translate into a problem for humans. For one thing, the baby mice were exposed to an activated phone for their entire gestation. I’m pretty sure no human mother has used her cell phone for over six thousand straight hours. Second, the phones were mere centimeters from the mice at all times. If you strapped a phone directly to your pregnant belly it would probably be further away from your baby’s head than the phones were from the baby mice.

All in all, I don’t find these results particularly compelling or alarming.  But I’m neither a doctor nor a pregnant woman.  If you want to be safe, I suppose you could refrain from using your cell phone as a girdle.