Can You Hear Me Now? Cell Phones and the Brain

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Ring Ring, Ring Ring – just what does answering your mobile by placing it next to your ear actually do to your brain. Whilst it is clear that many people have become surgically attached to their mobile phones – or at least it seems that they are bound together, and that once on the phone many become deaf and immune to all around them. In fact listening to intimate halves of conversations taking place 20 feet away provides plenty of opportunity to create amusing scenarios in between burst of indignation there have been many epidemiological studies suggesting this has a more significant long term effect that train rage.

A paper out on Feb 23rd in JAMA confirms that phones held to the head long enough to discuss the weather, location, emotional needs and business contracts (a longish time – 50 mins or longer) increases activity in the brain closest to the antennae – and not in a good way I suspect.[1]

The researcher are a bit more circumspect and state that the significance as well as the cause of the increased glucose metabolism in the orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole is as yet unclear.

We are well aware that epidemiological studies have fallen on the side of increased risk for brain cancer, but there have also been ones that suggest no risk suggesting inconclusive data. Most of these are long term studies with methodological errors that can be called on by the relative interest groups.[2]

This study was more direct and stuck people into a Pet Scanner whilst a cell phone was placed next to each ear for 50 minutes, now they do not say if any conversation was involved, but had it been a random collection of the calls I endured during my last train journey I am sure my brain metabolism would have been highly activated!

No they were better in their questions than this – the first time they had both phones on but the right one was muted and the second time they were off – the whole brain metabolism did not vary but the section next to the antennae showed significantly increased glucose metabolism once the phone was on. -I guess this is how we all use it, I have not found the merit of holding an off one next to my ear to be worth the effort after playschool exhausted my Captain Kirk meme.

The effects on neuronal activity could be due to changes in neurotransmitter release, cell membrane permeability, cell excitability, or calcium efflux or even from the increased thermal activity.


So what can we say, speak in shorter bursts, use a headset and keep them away from young brains – I personally am going to suggest to the next hooded young man on the train shouting “Yo Dude” into his phone in a slightly annoying and repetitive manner whilst listening to sounds alleged to be musical in his other ear and gazing into the navel area of his abundant abdomen next to the window sign that says silent carriage that he may like to consider his brains glucose metabolism activity in the long term and how this may detract from a future career in a gainful profession – what do you think!


[1] Volkow ND, et al “Effects of cell phone radiofrequency signal exposure on brain glucose metabolism” JAMA 2011; 305(8): 808-814. View Abstract

[2] Kundi M. The controversy about a possible relationship between mobile phone use and cancer. Cien Saude Colet. 2010 Aug;15(5):2415-30. Review. View Abstract

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