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Can Cell Phones Increase Brain Power?

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WebMD Health News

June 16, 2000 -- Do cell phones cause brain tumors? Can they interfere with your pacemaker? In this day and age, when questions about the health effects of cell phones border on the sensational, the findings of the latest study are somewhat reassuring, if not amusing.

In fact, they sound almost too good to be true: Using a cell phone may actually improve certain aspects of your memory. But that is exactly what Finnish researchers found.

"There is concern about the health effects of cellular phones because so many people are using them now," lead researcher Mika Koivisto tells WebMD. "We didn't study the health effects of cell phones; we studied the short-term effects on brain function and cognition." Koivisto is from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku, Finland.

Koivisto and his colleagues tested 48 volunteers for speed and accuracy by having them perform certain computerized memory tasks. The subjects, who wore a phone mounted on their head, were tested twice: once with the phone on -- exposing the volunteer to the radiofrequency electromagnetic field emitted by the phone -- and once with the phone off.

The results? "We found that response times were speeded up when the phone was on," Koivisto says. "But not all response times," he says, only for the more complex tasks.

Koivisto says he isn't sure why thought processing improves. "There are some [theories]. One is that there is a small warming up of brain, but we cannot say whether this is true or not." He says that the possible warming isn't likely to cause damage to the brain. Next, his team plans to use scanning techniques to study whether or not there is any actual warming going on.

"I think it confirms something that has been [around] for a long time," Jeffrey Fitzsimmons, PhD, tells WebMD. "That is, that frequently really low level [warming] effects are found to be beneficial." Fitzsimmons, a professor of radiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, reviewed the study for WebMD.

If there is any kind of localized warming effect -- even a very slight amount that is way, way too little to do any damage -- it might be enough to stimulate blood flow, "and any time you stimulate blood flow in the brain, that is a good thing," he explains.

But before you decide to ditch the landline and go cellular in the hopes of improving your brainpower, Koivisto warns that you won't notice a difference. "The effects are so small ... that they have no practical implications. These effects can only be observed in laboratory conditions," he says.

Fitzsimmons agrees. "I don't think this is anything that is going to be used constructively," he says. "It is just one of those things that is interesting ... and shows that it is not always just a simple matter of saying something is bad or it's good, because at different levels you have quite different effects. And this is definitely low level."

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