The researchers looked at the effect of exposing mice to high frequency electromagnetic fields (similar to the ones you are exposed to when chatting on your cell phone) for a long period of time (2 hours a day for 8 months). They used both normal mice and a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. An Alzheimer’s mouse is a transgenic mouse that has a gene that causes some of the manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
At the start of the study, before the exposure to the electromagnetic fields, the researchers tested the mice on memory tasks, and as expected, the Alzheimer’s mice were clearly impaired compared with the normal mice. After two months of exposure, no change was observed in either type of mouse. However, after 8 months of exposure to the cell phone-like electromagnetic fields, the Alzheimer’s mice did significantly better on memory tests compared with Alzheimer’s mice who didn’t receive the treatment. Normal, non-Alzheimer’s mice also showed cognitive benefits due to the electromagnetic fields compared with normal mice that didn’t get the treatment.
Time to get Grandma a cell phone? Not so fast.
You may have seen this story in the news. It may have sounded like we finally found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and, as a bonus, it’s non-invasive and has no side effects. You may have started thinking of a business plan that involves sewing cell phones into pillowcases for the elderly. Trust me, I thought of this. However, as per usual in the world of science, it’s probably not that simple.
First, I can tell you this: mice skulls are thin, weak, and very easy to cut through with just a regular pair of tiny scissors (how sad is it that I know this from experience?). The skull of a mouse is very different from that of a human, and this means that while the electromagnetic field might penetrate well into mice brains, this may not happen in humans.
Second, the mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, while widely used and our best tool for these types of studies, is flawed. So extrapolating the results to human Alzheimer’s disease is definitely premature.
Third, if you read the article carefully (I did it for you, so no worries), you’ll find that exposing the older mice to electromagnetic fields has one interesting side effect: an increase in body temperature. It then becomes difficult to tell if the memory enhancement observed is due to the temperature change or the electromagnetic fields. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I, for one, would much prefer to prevent cognitive decline by a daily regimen of quiet hot baths then by talking on the phone (though when I was a teenager, my mom would have guessed otherwise).
Finally, there was another sneaky side effect to the exposure, one that was seen only in younger mice: a decrease in three brain compounds involved in battling oxidative stress, including a very important antioxidant. The authors go over this finding somewhat quickly, and suggest that this can be interpreted as a good thing. Unfortunately, I happen to have studied this particular antioxidant quite a bit and I am of the opinion that the finding can also be interpreted as a very bad thing.
Overall, I don’t want to sound like a complete downer. This study was well conducted, showcases very interesting findings, and certainly gives us hope that maybe something can be done for Alzheimer’s disease. But I won’t be sowing a cell phone in my pillow just yet.
Reference: Electromagnetic field treatment protects against and reverses cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease mice. (2010) Arendash GW, Sanchez-Ramos J, Mori T, Mamcarz M, Lin Z, Runfeldt M, Wang L, Zhang G, Sava V, Tan J, Cao C. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 19:191-210.