Is Your Cell Phone Killing You?

People have worried about a possible link between cell phones and brain tumors since the first boxy phone debuted back in the 1980s. It’s certainly reasonable to worry about the effects of holding what is effectively a powerful radio transmitter to the side of one’s head, and no more than a few centimeters from one’s brain.

Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation. They occupy a different part of the same spectrum that includes microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, and other forms of radiation that have undeniably negative effects on living tissues.

As such, is it fair to say that using a cell phone regularly is akin to getting a CT scan every few minutes for the rest of your life? Not exactly. But there is evidence that it is not great for you. Here is a look at where the science stands and what, if anything, you should do about it.

Landmark Cell Phone Cancer Studies: An Overview

The Mayo Clinic has put together a helpful list of some of the key studies exploring the link between cell phones and cancer. The most notable include:

  • A massive, long-term study that followed about 420,000 regular cell phone users for 20 years. It found no measurable increase in cancer rates relative to the population of non-users.
  • A smaller study that found a small but statistically significant increase in salivary gland tumors among habitual cell phone users. Few tumors were malignant, leaving the implications open to interpretation.
  • A study that showed a possible link between heavy cell phone use and glioma, a brain malignancy. The same study showed no increased risk for lighter cell phone users.

What Does the WHO Say?

The World Health Organization is a well-respected non-governmental entity that makes reasoned, evidence-based pronouncements on a wide variety of hot-button medical topics. The WHO was recently in the news for announcing, after years of study and meta-study, that processed meats are likely carcinogenic.

In fact, the WHO keeps a detailed classification scheme for known carcinogens. Processed meats make the cut, as do “usual suspects” like tobacco and alcohol. And so do “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields”, or radio waves. Your home WiFi system, in-car Bluetooth speakers, and cellphones all generate radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that the WHO believes (or at least strongly suspects) to be carcinogenic.

Listen to the Numbers

On the other hand, the virulence of known carcinogens varies widely. It is worth noting that while the evidence for classifying processed meats as carcinogens is statistically significant (and that processed meats cause other health problems, strengthening the argument against consuming them in large quantities), the actual figures behind the link are rather unimpressive. Out of many thousands of people surveyed, only a handful developed tumors that could conclusively be linked to processed meat consumption. In other words, there hardly appears to be a public health emergency here on the scale of, say, tobacco consumption.

As more long-term studies about the link between cell phones and cancer come out, the medical community may well strengthen its conviction that holding a phone an inch or two from your brain is a risk factor for certain tumors. It may also turn out that this causative link, while real, is not particularly jarring.

If it turns out that heavy cell phone use does elevate tumor risk over years or decades, but only very slightly, policymakers are unlikely to clamor for the abolition of cell phones or the mandatory use of radiation-blocking devices, and most people are likely to continue using cell phones as before.

Can We Tune Out Statistical Noise?

The organizations we are fortunate enough to work with, including Northside Hospiyal and Neurosurgery Answer, are ironclad proponents of evidence-based medicine. We are aware that every study is vulnerable to confounding variables that obscure causative links and make definitive conclusions more difficult to reach. In some cases, such variables are relatively easy to brush aside. In other cases, the variables present serious challenges that demand the utmost caution.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the link between cell phones and cancer won’t be established with crystal clarity for many years, if ever. This is due to a number of factors, including:


  • The apparent weakness of the causative link, if any: It took years to establish a convincing causative link between tobacco use and cancer risk — a link that we all take for granted today. The relationship between cell phone use and cancer risk appears, at present, to be significantly weaker. Science moves slowly in the best of circumstances, so lay people shouldn’t expect swift answers.
  • The relatively short period of time during which cell phones have been in use: Though they first appeared a decade earlier, cell phones and wireless indoor telephones have only been in widespread use since the early 1990s. That’s probably long enough to draw convincing conclusions about heavy use from the population of early-adopting, heavy users, but it’s not quite sufficient for a population-wide look at the situation. Truly convincing work may have to wait until the first crop of digital natives — people who have used transmitting electronics for their entire lives — approaches retirement age.
  • The most sensational reports don’t directly measure tumor incidence: Some of the most sensational reports about the possible link between cell phone use and cancer don’t directly measure tumor incidence. Instead, they extrapolate about potential “downstream” risks (i.e., tumor growth) based on observed biological changes attributable to cell phone radiation. While it is reasonable to make such assumptions in a general sense, it is dangerous to do so in scientific studies, particularly when the processes by which the observed changes encourage tumor growth aren’t fully understood.


Cell Phones Aren’t Going Away

Whatever your opinion on the dangers of cell phones (or the science of the interaction with the human brain), one thing is clear: cell phones aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon. It is possible that, decades from now, portable handheld communication devices will be rendered obsolete by the relentless pace of technological change. But there is no sense in speculating about a day that’s not even close. For now, we are at the mercy of the radio-transmitting computers in our pockets — for better or worse.

How Deep Brain Stimulation Is Like a Pacemaker for Your Brain

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a relatively new treatment for a number of neurological conditions, including essential tremor, dystonia, and Parkinson’s Disease. DBS was FDA approved in 1997. Research into DBS’s potential applications continues, but already evidence suggests that DBS may be useful for the treatment of other conditions, including:

  • Cluster headaches
  • Epilepsy (epileptic seizures)
  • Chronic pain
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Major depression that isn’t adequately controlled by medication

DBS is particularly promising for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, which affects hundreds of thousands of Americans. Parkinson’s Disease can severely impact the quality of life over the course of its progression over many years. While DBS can’t cure the disease or reverse neurodegenerative processes, it can measurably improve quality of life for patients with moderate Parkinson’s symptoms.  The benefits of DBS have been shown to be sustained over at least 5 years in a randomised controlled trial.  On average patients experience 5 more hours of “ON time” following DBS.

DBS Is Like a Pacemaker for Your Brain

It’s helpful to think of DBS treatment as a pacemaker for your brain. In fact, the treatment does involve a pacemaker device that is broadly similar to the devices used to treat arrhythmias and other heart problems.

According to the National Institutes for Health, “DBS uses a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device called an implantable pulse generator (IPG) – similar to a heart pacemaker and approximately the size of a stopwatch – to deliver electrical stimulation to specific areas in the brain that influence movement, thus blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause PD symptoms”. Some researchers compare PD to having the brakes in a car intermittently stuck on.  DBS can reduce this effect.

The DBS “pacemaker” is typically implanted underneath the skin in the patient’s upper torso in an initial surgery. In a second surgery, the device is connected by a thin, flexible wire to an electrode implanted in the brain.

To determine the ideal location for the electrode, the surgical team uses both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) imaging. In some cases, a technique known as microelectrode recording, which uses a small wire to monitor and record the activity of small groups of nerve cells, is employed as well. Although the precise region varies patient by patient, DBS electrodes are typically implanted in these locations:

  • The globus pallidus
  • The thalamus
  • The subthalamic nucleus

DBS procedures usually involve one or two electrodes. The electrodes influence the function of the opposite side of the body. Patients with symptoms affecting both the right and left side often receive bilateral implants.

An electrode’s tip is positioned in the appropriate brain region and begins delivering impulses generated by the pacemaker-like device. These impulses block abnormal brain signals caused by the progression of Parkinson’s Disease, improving brain function and reducing the impact of Parkinson’s symptoms.

DBS changes neural firing patterns in the brain, and not the underlying causes of abnormal firing patterns or the overall progression of neurodegenerative disease. This is similar to the way in which a pacemaker corrects abnormal heart rhythms without curing or improving the underlying causes of those rhythms.

Is DBS Right for You?

DBS offers promise for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. When used properly in the right candidates for the procedure, DBS can meaningfully improve brain function and reduce certain Parkinson’s symptoms.

As with all surgical treatments for serious neurological conditions, however, it’s important to keep DBS’s benefits in perspective. The procedure requires two separate surgeries.  All surgical procedures have risks. Although adverse surgical outcomes are uncommon, candidates and their families need to understand these risks. Possible side effects and surgical complications include:

  • Post-surgical infection
  • Device breakage or malfunction
  • Hemorrhage
  • Movement of the device(s) in the body and brain

Although an accurate determination of one’s suitability for DBS intervention is only possible after a thorough, in-person evaluation of the candidate’s symptoms and risk profile, good DBS candidates generally:

  • Exhibit symptoms that are no longer adequately controlled by medication
  • Experience long “off” stretches, during which motor function and control are severely impacted
  • suffer from frequent “on – off” fluctuation
  • experience debilitating dyskinesia, often made worse by medication
  • suffer from frequent freezing
  • Have not progressed to the point that dopamine has little to no effect
  • Do not exhibit signs of dementia or cognitive loss
  • Are not being treated for severe depression
  • Are not being treated for a condition that requires future MRIs

A Treatment, Not a Panacea

DBS candidates and their families need to understand that while DBS is a promising treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and certain other neurological conditions, it’s not a panacea.

We tell our patients that they should never expect to feel better than their best “on” day, even with DBS. DBS doesn’t reverse the progression of Parkinson’s Disease or improve function during “on” periods. Rather, DBS simply extends the length of the “on” period and allows patients to take full advantage of the function that they enjoy during this time.

After DBS surgery, patients should begin to see immediate effects. However, we typically continue to consult with patients, at decreasing frequencies, in the months following the procedure. These consultations allow for the adjustment of the pacemaker device’s signal strength and stimulative effects, as well as medication dosing.

Finally, DBS is indicated only for classic Parkinson’s Disease, and not for Parkinsonian (sometimes called Parkinson’s Plus) conditions that present some of the same symptoms of classic PD, but tend to have different (often more aggressive) progressions, causative factors, and treatment options. If you’re facing a Parkinson’s-like condition, ask your physician or holistic treatment professional about options that apply specifically to your situation.

The Science of Cell Phones and Brain Tumors

The first cell phones hit the U.S. market in the 1980s. Almost immediately, consumer advocates raised questions about their potential to adversely affect users’ health over long periods of time. During the 1990s, as cell phones became cheaper and more reliable, the pitch and intensity of this questioning gained steam.

Now that cell phones and their powerful smartphone successors — which resemble the first bulky, functionally limited mobile phones about as much as 18th-century surgery, performed without antibiotics or reliable anesthesia, resembles modern neurosurgery — have become an integral part of our modern economic and social fabric, it’s hard to imagine turning back the clock and returning to a time without mobile technology. (You certainly wouldn’t be willing to undergo major surgery without antibiotics or anesthesia, and no ethical surgeon would agree to such a procedure anyway.)

But the questions continue — and they’re worth addressing. Here’s a look at the science behind the oft-repeated claim that cell phones cause brain tumors.

A Long-Term Rise in Tumor Incidence

According to the Mayo Clinic, providers have documented a small but statistically significant (and steady) rise in the incidence of benign and malignant head tumors since the 1970s. While this at first blush appears to correlate with the adoption of cellphones and other radiation-emitting electronics, it’s more likely that the correlation is incidental. The more likely explanation for the increase is a dramatic improvement in imaging technologies and diagnostic techniques.

However, there is enough uncertainty in the data to prompt legitimate questions and necessitate further investigation.

What Can Landmark Studies Tell Us?

During the more than three decades that cell phones have been in use — including the second half of that period, when cell phone use became commonplace — several highly regarded studies have shed some light on the correlation between radio-transmitting electronics and head/neck tumors. The most noteworthy include:

  • A small but statistically significant correlation between cell phone use and salivary gland tumors, though a small sample size and other complicating factors cast some doubt on the results’ applicability
  • A statistically weak correlation between heavy cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor (glioma), but no general correlation between phone use and overall tumor incidence
  • A two-decade mega-survey of more than 400,000 cell phone users that found no statistically significant correlation between phone use and brain tumors

Benefits of Common Safety Devices and Regulations

It’s also worth noting that some authorities aren’t waiting for a consensus to emerge. The city of Berkeley, California, recently made headlines ( CNN) for enacting a strict law requiring cell phone vendors to inform consumers of existing federal regulations regarding cell phone emissions and provide detailed guidance on safe use (including safety equipment, such as hands-free devices and ear protection) — either by handing out a special pamphlet or displaying a sign in-store. While it’s unclear how or if this new local rule will change consumer behavior, there’s no denying that consumers remain suspicious of the ever-present cell phone.

Can Being Nice to Others Change Your Brain?

What goes around, comes around. Pay it forward. Nice guys finish first.

You are certain to find the perfect term or phrase to describe the perks of emotional positivity and personal generosity. There’s a lot to be said, literally, for being nice to others and treating your neighbors how you’d like to be treated.

But can being nice actually change your brain for the better? As we learn more about the brain, neurologists are taking a closer look at this provocative — and potentially paradigm-shifting — question. Here’s what we know so far.

  1. Kind or Selfless Acts Release Neurotransmitters Associated with Positive Emotion

Studies show that acts of kindness — no, they don’t have to be random — facilitate the release of neurotransmitters associated with positive emotion. In particular, the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin and pleasure-promoting neurotransmitter dopamine appear in elevated levels after an act of selflessness. The mood boost associated with the kind act can last much longer than the act itself, though persistence is situational.

  1. Kindness Produces Healthier, More Fulfilling Relationships

People who behave selflessly or “do unto others” tend to have more fulfilling personal relationships: happier marriages, healthier parent-child interactions, and even more vibrant relationships with tangential acquaintances and coworkers. You’ve probably experienced an unexpected emotional bond over an act of kindness or selflessness, whether you initiated it or not. Perhaps some of your most fulfilling personal relationships have started or deepened this way.

  1. Kindness May Have Cardiovascular Benefits

Recent studies suggest that altruistic behavior may result in the release of oxytocin, a key inflammation-reducing chemical thought to promote heart health, in elevated levels. Over time, oxytocin reduces “wear and tear” on the heart muscle and cardiovascular system, potentially lowering risk for adverse cardiovascular events.

The Social Implications of the “Nice Brain” Theory

The correlation between selfless acts and positive emotional (and possibly physical) feedback has some provocative — but, it should be stressed, highly assumptive — implications.

For instance, the fact that our bodies appear to reward kindness suggests that humans and perhaps other primates and closely related mammals have evolved some sort of altruism reflex or imperative. As social creatures that evolved in response to some intense environmental pressures (notably rapid changes in climate patterns, which in turn affect food availability and habitat suitability), it makes intuitive sense that altruistic early human populations had better reproductive success relative to selfish ones. That said, more study is needed to determine the strength of this correlation and ascertain whether it’s present in other mammals.

Not Quite Settled

For laypeople, science can seem, well, illogical. In a media environment that increasingly rewards sensationalist stories, grabby headlines and “bite-sized” content, the painstaking and often incremental process of scientific discovery — backstopped by the venerable scientific method — is frustrating for information consumers who demand easy answers.

Then again, the goal of science is to address tough questions without obvious answers. And the discoveries that occur as a result of this process often provoke more questions than they answer. In this particular case, it’s not yet possible to say that being nice is always a boon for your brain. If and when the neurological community is able to say so for sure, you can bet that we’ll have a host of new questions to explore.