TAMPA — Professor Gary Arendash remembers looking out his office window and noting that half the students crossing the University of South Florida campus had cell phones plastered to their ears.
"I was thinking, what's so important that they have to be on cell phones in the few minutes between classes?'' he recalls. "I'll bet those cell phones, if anything, are deleterious to memory function.''
So Arendash and other USF Alzheimer's disease researchers set up an experiment with lab mice, beaming electromagnetic signals at them two hours a day for eight or nine months — the equivalent of daily phone use for 25 to 30 years in humans.
The results, published in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, took the research team by surprise.
Applied over the long haul, radiation like that from cell phones seemed to improve memory in normal mice, protect mice from dementia and even reverse dementia in some cases.
"At first, we thought, wait a minute, this should not be,'' Arendash says. "It must be a spurious or chance event.''
But no. Further testing showed that "Alzheimer's mice'' that are genetically programmed to develop dementia somehow retained their memories after prolonged blasts of electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation.
"They stayed as good as normal mice,'' says Arendash, the study's lead author.
Brain autopsies also showed that radiated mice had fewer of the sticky protein clumps associated with Alzheimer's than mice that were not radiated.
"This seems to open up a whole new era in neuroscience on the effects of EMF on memory,'' Arendash says. "Frankly, the long-term effects had not been looked at.''
Dr. Creighton Phelps at the National Institute on Aging called the study "very interesting'' but cautioned that "this has to be considered very preliminary'' before leaping to any conclusion that cell phones might protect memories in humans.
Among other things, the USF mice were not strapped down with tiny little phones next to their heads. Their whole bodies were bombarded with electromagnetic radiation. Perhaps that stimulated a biological response in one of the body's other organs that was later transmitted to the brain, Phelps suggested. Radiation could turn out to be beneficial but have nothing to do with cell phones.
"I would encourage them to follow up on this and other labs should follow up on it,'' Phelps said.
Tiny cell phone tower
Lab mice usually live 24 to 30 months. Scientists can induce dementia by implanting human genes known to lead to Alzheimer's. These "transgenic'' mice are guaranteed to grow stupid as they age. They will also develop sticky amyloid plaques that are one hallmark of Alzheimer's.
USF used 96 mice — some normal and some transgenic.
For an hour each morning and each evening, cages were stacked in a circle around a electromagnetic transmitter — essentially a tiny cell phone tower.
Frequency was set at 916 megahertz — just like that of American cell phones. The power was adjusted so the radiated energy approximated what a human brain receives when a phone is placed right next to the head. Control mice — both normal and transgenic — were not zapped.
Then all the mice were tested in water mazes, where they swim around and try to recall locations of a little underwater platforms that allow them to stand up.
Normal mice radiated for six to nine months completed the mazes with fewer errors than normal mice that weren't radiated. Agility and anxiety tests ruled out the possibility that better coordination or moods caused these differences.
Transgenic Alzheimer's mice also performed better when radiated.
For some, radiation began when they were just 2 months old, before mouse dementia typically sets in. Those mice kept strong memories and performed as well as normal mice — suggesting that radiation might have protected their memories.
Other transgenic mice began radiation treatment at 5 months old, when their memories had begun to deteriorate. In those cases, the radiation seemed to halt further memory decline and even reverse it.
Autopsies indicated that amyloid protein in the radiated mice tended to remain in soluable form — essentially sloshing around in the brain — instead of coalescing into the sticky clumps that show up in Alzheimer's brains.
The same thing happened when USF researchers exposed amyloid in lab dishes to electromagnetic radiation. The amyloid tended to stay in liquid form rather than sticking together.
Heat may be one explanation, Arendash says. Body temperatures after months of radiation were about 1 degree Celsius higher than for mice that weren't radiated.
Head injury research
Arendash would like to expand on the radiation experiments, varying frequency and duration, to see if different combinations provide better results.
"We are very interested in getting funding from the Department of Defense'' to explore possible implications for traumatic head injuries, he says.
One of the main effects of brain injury is an increase in amyloid protein.
"The possibility that we could have a non-pharmacological treatment for Alzheimer's and other problems is very exciting.''
Given the debate about cell phones and brain cancer, Arendash acknowledged that testing electromagnetic radiation on humans could face hurdles.
But Arendash recently boned up on the cell phone and cancer literature and concluded there is "no evidence'' of much risk.
"You don't hear anything good about cell phones as far as brain physiology goes,'' he said. "Only the bad.''
Stephen Nohlgren may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8442.