An international team of researchers studying the long term effects of electromagnetic waves like those emitted by cell phones on mice were surprised to find they protected their brains against Alzheimer’s and even reversed the memory damage caused by the disease.

The study was the work of neuroscientists, electrical engineers, and neurologists from universities in the US, Japan and China, and is being published online on 7 January in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The study was led by University of South Florida (USF) researchers at Florida’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), a statewide project sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of sticky deposits or plaques of beta-amyloid protein in the brain.

While it is not clear what role plaques play in Alzheimer’s, many experts believe they stop brain cells communicating with each other and also disrupt other processes that cells rely on to survive. Most treatments for Alzheimer’s try to target beta-amyloid protein.

In this study, researchers took mice genetically engineered to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, exposed them to cell phone waves and discovered the electromagnetic radiation prevented build up of amyloid protein in the brains of young mice, erased deposits of the protein in the brains of old Alzheimer’s mice, and also reversed memory damage.

Lead author of the study, USF research professor Dr Gary Arendash told the press that:

“It surprised us to find that cell phone exposure, begun in early adulthood, protects the memory of mice otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms.”

“It was even more astonishing that the electromagnetic waves generated by cell phones actually reversed memory impairment in old Alzheimer’s mice.”

A USF statement describes the study as “highly-controlled”: the researchers were able to isolate the effects of cell phone exposure from other lifestyle factors like diet and exercise.

For the study the researchers used 96 mice, most of which where genetically altered to develop beta-amyloid plaques and memory problems mimicking Alzheimer’s disease as they got older (the “Alzheimer’s mice). The others were not genetically engineered in this way and acted as controls (the “normal” mice).

The researchers exposed both groups of mice: the ones genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer’s and the normal controls, to an electromagnetic field like that generated by standard cell phones for two periods lasting one hour each every day for between seven and nine months.

To achieve this effect the researchers arranged the animals’s cages in a circle around an antenna generating the cell phone signal. All the animals were kept at the the same distance from the antenna and exposed to electromagnetic waves typically emitted by a cell phone pressed up against a human head, said the USF researchers in a statement.

The results showed that:

  • Exposure started when they were young adults, ie before showing signs of memory impairment, appeared to protect the Alzheimer’s mice from becoming cognitively impaired.
  • Exposed older Alzheimer’s mice performed as well on tests measuring memory and thinking skills as normal older mice without dementia.
  • When older, previously unexposed Alzheimer’s mice already showing memory problems were exposed to the electromagnetic field, their memory impairment vanished.
  • Normal mice exposed to the electromagnetic waves for several months showed above normal memory performance.

To assess the mice’s memory skills, the researchers adapted a test designed to assess mild cognitive impairment in humans.

“Since we selected electromagnetic parameters that were identical to human cell phone use and tested mice in a task closely analogous to a human memory test, we believe our findings could have considerable relevance to humans, said Arendash.

It took several months for the effects of the electromagnetic wave exposure to show in the mice: this suggests it would take years in humans.

Arendash and colleagues concluded that electromagnetic field exposure could be an effective, drug-free, non-invasive way to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

They are now investigating the effect of different frequencies and strengths of electromagnetic radiation: eg will it be more or less rapid, and will the cognitive benefits be greater or less, than they found in this study.

Co-author of the study and major member of the USF team, Dr Chuanhai Cao, said:

“If we can determine the best set of electromagnetic parameters to effectively prevent beta-amyloid aggregation and remove pre-existing beta amyloid deposits from the brain, this technology could be quickly translated to human benefit against AD [Alzheimer’s disease]”.

“Since production and aggregation of beta-amyloid occurs in traumatic brain injury, particularly in soldiers during war, the therapeutic impact of our findings may extend beyond Alzheimer’s disease,” said Cao.

When they monitored the mice during their one-hour exposures when the electromagnetic field was turned on, the researchers noticed that after several months, the brain temperature of the Alzheimer’s mice rose slightly; this did not happen in the normal mice.

Speculating on this observation in the light of the other results, the researchers suggest perhaps the temperature increase helped brain cells to release the newly-formed beta-amyloid plaques.

As an explanation for the improved memory function in the normal mice after months of exposure, they suggested perhaps the electromagnetic waves increased brain activity by boosting blood flow and energy metabolism in the brain.

“Our study provides evidence that long-term cell phone use is not harmful to brain,” said Cao, adding that:

“To the contrary, the electromagnetic waves emitted by cell phones could actually improve normal memory and be an effective therapy against memory impairment.”

Arendash said it will be a while yet before we know exactly what is going on: how the waves produce these beneficial effects on memory. But one thing is clear he said:

“The cognitive benefits of long-term electromagnetic exposure are real, because we saw them in both protection- and treatment-based experiments involving Alzheimer’s mice, as well as in normal mice.”

“Electromagnetic Field Treatment Protects Against and Reverses Cognitive Impairment in Alzheimer’s Disease Mice.”
Gary W. Arendash, Juan Sanchez-Ramos, Takashi Mori, Malgorzata Mamcarz, Xiaoyang Lin, Melissa Runfeldt, Li Want, Guixin Zhang, Vasyl Sava, Juan Tan and Chuanhai Cao.
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 19:1 (January 2010).

Source: University of South Florida Health, JAD.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD