Frequent cell phone use may slow brain function

Researchers also find more-focused attention

There have been worries about cell phones causing brain cancer. And certainly everyone worries about driving behind the guy who's holding the steering wheel with his knees while tapping in a message on a wireless e-mail device.

But now hear this: Mobile phone use may cause a slowing of brain activity.

Before anyone panics, the suggestion that frequent mobile phone use makes us behave a little unbalanced is, so far, based on a study of just 300 people conducted by researchers in Australia, England and the Netherlands.

The study, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience this month, looked at the group of 300 people over 2.4 years, but researchers plan to expand the study to gather data on 17,000 people over a longer period of time.

According to the study, frequent mobile phone users demonstrated slowed brain function -- but the slowed brain effects are still considered within normal brain functioning. A longer study with a larger sample group would address whether the slowed brain activity should be considered an adverse health effect, according to a statement from Brainclinics Diagnostics BV in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Brainclinics Diagnostics was one of the research groups that carried out the study.

The noted slowed brain function could not be explained by differences in personality, according to researchers. "In Alzheimer's dementia you also find a severe slowing of brain activity," said Martijn Arns, the main investigator for Brainclinics Diagnostics, in a statement. "However, the slowing found in this study, with mobile phone users, can still be considered within 'normal' limits." Nonetheless, Arns predicted that a longer-term study would show more severe effects.

Of the 300 people in the study, 100 were frequent mobile phone users, another 100 were non-users of mobile phones and another 100 were considered intermediate cell phone users. Differences in brain activity, as measured in terms of quantitative results of electroencephalographic (EEG) studies and assessments of neuropsychological functions such as attention, memory, executive function and personality, were examined. Among the results: Frequent users scored higher on ratings as extroverts and were found to be less open-minded.

The study also found that frequent users are better able than others to focus their attention. That result could be due to a learning effect that comes from making phone calls in busy places where people have to focus on a phone call while filtering out background noise and other distractions, according to the researchers.

Despite this improved focus and the findings about personality, the frequent users showed more instances of slowed activity as measured by delta and theta EEG power, as well as a slowdown in a measurement called alpha peak frequency.

The researchers cited several other studies, going back to 1998, on the short-term effects of mobile phone use. Some of those studies showed that frequent users of cell phones improved their scores on cognitive tests. Those positive outcomes were linked to small increases in brain temperature, which led to faster metabolic activity and thus faster reaction times. However, the researchers in the current study said the previous studies are inconclusive.

In the recent study, Brainclinics worked with researchers at Radbound University in Nijmegen, the Institute of Psychiatry in London and The Brain Resource Co. in Sydney.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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