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Study Shows Cell Phones Alter Brain Activity

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A man speaks on his cell phone. (credit: Getty Images/Robyn Beck/AFP)

A man speaks on his cell phone. (credit: Getty Images/Robyn Beck/AFP)

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(CBSDFW.COM) – Hundreds of millions of Americans have a cell phone. But are they safe? A new study, showing changes in the brains of cell phone users, is fueling concerns about the effect of the phones on people’s health.

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton looked at the National Institutes of Health study that was conducted on 47 people, during a 50-minute call.

The study has garnered some interesting results on brain activity. “What [researchers] did was ask people to hold a cell phone up to the right and left sides of their head in the ‘on’ and ‘off’ positions respectively, and then, using a PET (positron emission tomography) scan to measure brain activity, known as glucose metabolism, they found that when the phone was in the ‘on’ position, they actually found increase in activity,” explained Ashton.

Okay, so brain activity increased, what’s the significance of that? Researchers don’t know the answer to that question.

“They don’t know whether these are potentially harmful effects, or, believe it or not, whether they could actually be positive or good effects,” said Ashton.

Cell phones have always produced low-level energy, known as electromagnetic radiation. The non-ionizing radiation isn’t believed to cause any harm from heating. But the study raises questions of does it do something else?

This first of its kind study, looking specifically at how electromagnetic radiation from cell phones affects glucose metabolism, adds to the long debate on the potential impact of cell phones and health.

“Multiple studies have been done [with] conflicting results,” Ashton confirmed. “Most have not shown an increase in the rates of brain tumors or brain cancer. Some have. I think the key thing here is, when you look at something that has been used by so many people… over the last 15 or so years, the rate of cell phone use has skyrocketed, the rate of brain tumors and brain cancer has largely remained unchanged, telling people there’s probably not a direct effect.”

To minimize your potential health risk, Ashton recommended limiting kids’ access to cell phones. She said, “The brains of children tend to be thinner, the skull tends to be thinner and their brains tend to be more susceptible to any effects during that period.”

While the energy transition risk doesn’t drop to zero, some experts recommend lowering risk by using the cell’s speakerphone or hands-free device to keep the antenna away from your head. And no matter how much your teen wants to stay connected with their BFF, doctors frown on sleeping with a cell phone under your pillow or directly next to your bed.

As of last summer, there were nearly 300 million cells phones in use in the United States. That has more than 90-percent of Americans with a cell phone pressed to their ear, for an average of 21 minutes a day.

Some experts are calling for research that not only looks at the long-term impact on healthy individuals, but also on unhealthy people. The author of the study, Dr. Nora Volkow, says she is planning a retrospective study to see if long-time cell phone users have any obvious health consequences.

Results from the study, conducted in 2009, were published in the February 23 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association.

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