Do Electronic Devices Mess with Your Brain?

As you read these words, radiation — invisible waves of widely variable wavelengths — is bombarding every part of your body from every direction. It is passing through your head, neck, chest, abdomen and extremities at the speed of light. It comes in many different forms, from the natural light and ultraviolet radiation produced by the sun to the radio waves produced by now-ubiquitous terrestrial transmitters.

Freaked out yet?

We can’t stop the sun from emitting radiation, but we can control the myriad electronic devices that produce mostly long-wave (i.e., radio) radiation. Many consumer advocates and health professionals believe we should. But does the science support this? Put another way, do electronic devices really mess with our brains in a dangerous way?

Cancer Risks?

Consumer advocates continue to express concerns about the long-term cancer risks associated with some common transmitting devices, particularly cell phones and smartphones. However, it’s far from clear that these devices, which primarily emit long-wave radiation (radio waves), have any measurable impact on long-term cancer risk absent other variables.

Fortunately, consumer electronics don’t produce large amounts of short-wave radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays. When it comes to long-term cancer risk (and, in high doses, acute short-term illness and death), short-wave radiation — such as X-rays and gamma rays (super short waves that mostly emanate from dying stars and other interstellar sources and can’t penetrate earth’s atmosphere in large quantities)— is exponentially more dangerous than radio waves emitted by transmitting devices. That’s why you’re required to wear a lead shield during an X-ray exam, for instance.

The Hidden Perils of Extended Screen Time

Radiation aside, consumer electronics may have more insidious risks. One that deserves special attention: the impact of extended “screen time” — engagement with screened devices, such as smartphones, tablets, televisions and laptops — on the emotional development of young children.

A study from Public Health England, reported at length in The Guardian, found that children who spent more time playing computer games (an obvious measure of screen time) scored lower on tests of physical and emotional well being than children who used screened devices sparingly. Although the study wasn’t peer-reviewed and had some important methodological shortcomings, it adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting screen time negatively impacts young children.

Sleep-Wake Impacts

Screened devices affect users of all ages in a related, equally insidious way. Visible light emissions from most screened devices concentrate at the blue end of the spectrum, mimicking the character of natural morning light. After dark, this can alter your body’s rhythms — telling the unconscious part of your brain that controls sleeping and waking that it’s time to get up, when it’s really time to go to bed. To minimize the negative effects of blue light exposure, some experts recommend curtailing screened device use in bed.

Can We Compartmentalize Our Digital Lives?

Our species hasn’t yet produced an evolutionary response to the digital revolution. Unfortunately, we are clearly hardwired to respond to our indispensible electronic devices in ways we never intended, creating a new challenge for our connected society.

Even if it’s not plausible for most adults to quit their smartphones cold turkey, there’s much to be said for limiting screen time, setting up “screen-free” zones in bedrooms and other places, and ensuring that children develop a healthy appreciation for non-electronic pursuits. Our collective health — and sanity — could depend on it.

Is Depression a Symptom of Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is far more complex than we knew just 10 or 20 years ago. In fact, clinicians like John Gorecki MD, increasingly view Parkinson’s as a “family” of conditions — distinguishing discrete processes and symptoms formerly lumped together under the Parkinson’s aegis.

That said, Parkinson’s expansiveness doesn’t mean it’s difficult to diagnose. In fact, Parkinson’s and related conditions carry an array of symptoms that, taken together, support such a diagnosis. Neurologists and other clinicians involved in the diagnosis and evaluation of Parkinson’s patients are increasingly attentive to the presence of a particular symptom — depression — that could serve as an early indicator (or even future predictor) of Parkinson’s disease.

Classic Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

Parkinson’s is a common condition: According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, more than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD every year, and as many as 10 million people worldwide are afflicted at any given time. Given the disease’s chronic nature, long duration and often striking presentation, it’s no surprise that many “classic” Parkinson’s symptoms are widely recognized and understood. Some such symptoms include:

  • Tremor, particularly in the hands and fingers
  • Slow movements and rigid muscles
  • Impaired posture and speech
  • Cognitive impairment (dementia)
  • Sexual dysfunction and bladder control issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Swallowing problems and constipation

These symptoms arise and become more noticeable as the disease progresses.

Depression and Parkinson’s Disease

Depression is not a “classic” Parkinson’s disease symptom. In fact, it’s arguably the least-known and most often overlooked symptom. Nevertheless, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports that as many as 60 percent of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s experience “mild or moderate depressive symptoms” at some point during the disease’s progression.

Parkinson’s-related depression may occur at any point, sometimes the patient has been formally diagnosed. It’s a physical process caused by disease-related changes to the brain, specifically the area responsible for producing the mood-regulating chemical serotonin and the frontal lobe, which is responsible for regulating higher-level brain functions like mood and impulse control. Parkinson’s patients typically have under-active frontal lobes and lower levels of serotonin than non-Parkinsonian peers.

Parkinson’s-related depression can affect the overall progression of the disease as well as the quality of life of those afflicted. In particular, depressive Parkinson’s patients report lower levels of satisfaction with everyday tasks, find such tasks more difficult, and (on average) begin chemical treatment for Parkinson’s-related motor symptoms earlier than patients without symptoms of depression.

Pharmaceutical Treatment and Cognitive Therapy

Like many other presentations of depression, Parkinson’s-related depression is treatable with commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals. There’s also evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy, used in conjunction with or independently of pharmaceutical treatment, may ameliorate symptoms and improve quality of life. In fact, patients who take steps to treat their depression symptoms may notice an improvement in their motor and cognitive symptoms as well.

More to Learn About Parkinson’s Disease

It is now clear that there’s a link between depression and Parkinson’s disease. Given the complexity of the family of conditions known as “PD,” it is also a foregone conclusion that other links and correlations will emerge in the years to come. Such discoveries will teach us more about Parkinson’s and related conditions — and could provide some measure of hope (or at least set reasonable expectations) for Parkinson’s sufferers and their families.