Friday, February 5, 2010

Do cell phones and wi-fi systems cause brain tumors?

Not a day goes by where I don't see someone talking on their cell phone in Belltown and downtown. Most of us own a cell phone and use it daily. Sorry to cause concern, but reports are coming in that using a cell phone dramatically increases our chance of getting a brain tumor. In this month's GQ magazine, there's an article called Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous to Your Health. The author of the article, Christopher Ketcham, compiled data from research and personal interviews and reported:
Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor--specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone--goes up as much as 40 percent for adults.
. . . an independent study in Sweden last year concluded that people who started using a cell phone before the age of 20 were five times as likely to develop a brain tumor.
The article is a 5-page internet article and is easy to read most of the time, and at other times it gets very in-depth with the technological information. I encourage you to read it and determine whether the claims in the article are true. Until then, here are some excerpts.
According to this article, brain tumors are not the only hazard linked to cell phone use.
Though the scientific debate is heated and far from resolved, there are multiple reports, mostly out of Europe's premier research institutions, of cell-phone and PDA use being linked to "brain aging," brain damage, early-onset Alz¬heimer's, senility, DNA damage, and even sperm die-offs (many men, after all, keep their cell phones in their pants pockets or attached at the hip).
What is so harmful about a cell phone?
The only honest way to think of our cell phones is that they are tiny, low-power microwave ovens, without walls, that we hold against the sides of our heads.
His article doesn't stop with the hazards of cell phone use. Wi-fi systems are all over the place, coffee shops, shopping malls, book stores, and our homes. In my building, my laptop can "see" at least 20 wi-fi networks that belong to my neighbors. Some of the names assigned to the wi-fi networks are humorous; one network name invites ladies to come to his unit and another one tells of his/her hatred for the New York Yankees.
Wi-fi is everywhere in Belltown, downtown, and your town; here's the hazards caused by them.
"It never ceases to surprise me that people will fight a cell tower going up in their neighborhoods," Blake Levitt, author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, told me. "They they'll install a Wi-Fi system in their homes. That's like inviting a cell tower indoors."
Wi-Fi operates typically at a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz (the same frequency as microwave ovens) but is embedded with a wider range of modulations than cell phones, because we need it to carry more data.
Other countries are already starting to take action against wi-fi systems.
In April 2008, the national library of France, citing possible "genotoxic effects," announced it would shut down its Wi-Fi system, and the staff of the storied Library of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris followed up with a petition demanding the disconnection of Wi-Fi antennas and their replacement by wired connections. Several European governments are already moving to prohibit Wi-Fi in government buildings and on campuses, and the Austrian Medical Association is lobbying for a ban of all Wi-Fi systems in schools, citing the danger to children's thinner skulls and developing nervous systems.
Like Ketcham, I'm not trying to be a conspiracy theorist. I ran into the article while trying to get some much-needed fashion advice. I could not imagine not using my cell phone anymore, and getting rid of the very convenient wi-fi system in my place. While reading the article using my wi-fi internet connection with my cell phone at my side, I started to get a headache; probably from all the bad news I was reading, but perhaps for the reasons stated in this article.
For now, I'm choosing not to worry about it, but Ketcham concludes his article with the following statement from a retired researcher named Allan Frey:
"Until there are bodies in the streets, I don't think anything is going to change."

Brain-controlled Wheelchairs for SCI Patients Not Far Off

In the future, it may be possible to fly a plane, drive a car, and vacuum your home with the use of brain-controlled devices. For now, scientists in the UK and around the world are developing a brain-computer interface for use with a robotic wheelchair, according to an article in Echo News. The article said that once the technology is perfected, “The breakthrough would allow a stroke victim who was completely paralyzed and unable to speak to become mobile.”
The device works by way of a headband or brain-cap used to measure brainwave activity. The device then converts the brainwave information into commands to operate the wheelchair. The team of UK scientists asserted that the new technology would allow spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke and paralysis victims to control wheelchairs with their brainwaves, even if they are unable to speak or otherwise communicate, the Echo article said.
In order to make the brain-computer interface work, patients must be trained to think clearly to reduce the amount of brainwave activity to a level recognizable by the current technology. The prototype device is capable of receiving four commands, forward, right, left, and backward. The scientists plan to install failsafes to protect wheelchair users in traffic and other dangerous situations.
There is still much research and development to be done before the device will be ready for use outside of the laboratory, but the implications of such technology are endless. With more advancement, a device could allow traumatic brain injury sufferers to communicate with their loved ones with the aid of a brain-computer interface to decode the formerly trapped messages. Paralysis victims could be fitted with devices that would allow them to walk, pilot a car or plane, and even the ability to experience sensation by way of sensory-input sensors.
Is it the stuff of science fiction? Maybe, but the doors between brainwaves and computers have been opened, and there is no sign of them closing any time soon. Spinal cord and brain injury sufferers have reason to set their hopes high and to expect a future in which true full recoveries might fast turn into a reality.

Anorexia and Brain Imaging

Recent multiple brain imaging studies of patients with restricting-type anorexia nervosa (AN) reveal neurocircuit dysregulation and may help clarify the disorder’s confounding symptoms.
In a review article, Walter Kaye, MD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and his coauthors1 said that insights into the ventral (limbic) and dorsal (cognitive) neural circuit dysfunction, perhaps related to altered serotonin and dopamine (DA) metabolism, may help explain why individuals with anorexia often report that dieting reduces their anxiety while eating increases it and why they worry about long-term consequences but seem impervious to immediate gratification and unable to live in the moment.
Many women diet in this culture, but relatively few (0.5%) have anorexia, Kaye told Psychiatric Times. “Why is that? Well, you pretty much have to have a certain temperament and personality in childhood to be vulnerable for . . . an eating disorder,” said Kaye. “Not everyone who develops anorexia has all these traits in childhood, but most have one or more of them,” he said. “These traits include harm avoidance, anxiety, behavioral inhibition, difficulty with set shifting [easily moving from one mental set to another], a tendency to focus on details rather than the big picture, and perfectionism.” Even after recovery, these personality and temperament traits persist, pointing to underlying neurobiological factors.
Another clue is the relatively stereotypic course of anorexia. That is, anorexia tends to occur in females with onset during adolescence when some combination of puberty, brain development, stress and/or sociocultural factors comes into play, provoking the onset of anorexic symptoms. Anorexia is marked by body image distortions and the fear of being fat and results in a downward spiral of weight loss that is difficult to reverse.
Once an individual becomes anorexic, starvation and malnutrition affect every system of the body, including the brain. Such changes include neurochemical imbalances, which may, in turn, exaggerate the preexisting traits and accelerate the disease process. Individuals with anorexia, for example, have a reduced brain volume and a regression to prepubertal gonadal function, Kaye said. Yet, these disturbances tend to normalize after weight restoration, which suggests that they are state-related alterations.
In their article, Kaye and colleagues distinguish between state-related and trait-related abnormalities, and then review how new brain imaging technologies are helping identify the brain pathways involved in AN.
Brain imaging
Studies using positron emission tomography (PET) brain imaging and related technologies have assessed serotonin and DA neurotransmitter systems in individuals with anorexia and in those who have recovered, while studies using functional MRI (fMRI) have illuminated altered activity in interconnected brain regions of these individuals.
Imaging studies suggest that individuals with anorexia have an imbalance between circuits in the brain that regulate reward and emotion (ventral) and circuits that are associated with consequences and planning ahead (dorsal).2 Brain-imaging studies also show that individuals with anorexia have alterations in those parts of the brain (eg, anterior insula) involved with interoceptive self-awareness that may be implicated in disturbed bodily sensations.3 In addition, altered function of other related regions may contribute to altered sensing of the rewarding aspects of pleasurable foods. Individuals with anorexia may literally not recognize when they are hungry.
The neurotransmitters serotonin and DA are primary targets of study, according to Kaye. “Simply put, the serotonin system tends to be inhibitory while the dopamine system is associated with signals about reward.”
Kaye said that evidence from imaging studies suggests that disturbances in the serotonergic system might contribute to vulnerability for restricted eating and behavioral inhibition as well as a bias toward anxiety, particularly excessive concern with consequences. Meanwhile, DA dysfunction, particularly in striatal circuits, may contribute to altered reward, decision making, stereotypic motor movements, and decreased food ingestion.
Evidence that the dopamine system is involved includes reduced cerebrospinal fluid levels of DA metabolites both in ill individuals and in those who have recovered from anorexia, functional DA D2 receptor gene (DRD2) polymorphisms in individuals with anorexia, and impaired visual discrimination learning. A PET study found that subjects who recovered from AN had increased D2/D3 receptor binding in the ventral striatum, a region that modulates responses to reward stimuli.4 This finding could indicate increased D2/D3 receptor densities, decreased extracellular DA, or both in individuals who recovered from anorexia.
With regard to serotonin, brain imaging studies consistently show that when compared with healthy subjects, individuals with or those who have recovered from eating disorders have an imbalance between enhanced 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) receptor 1A (5-HT1A) and diminished 5-HT2A receptor binding potential.1 “Eating carbohydrates is thought to increase extracellular serotonin levels, which, in turn, may drive anxiety and harm avoidance in AN. . . . Because these symptoms are correlated with 5-HT1A receptor binding in anorexia, stimulation of 5-HT1A receptors offers a potential explanation for feeding-related dysphoric mood in AN. When individuals with AN starve, extracellular serotonin concentrations might diminish, resulting in a brief respite from dysphoric mood.”

Experiment aims at learning disorder

A pill to ease a type of mental retardation? An experiment is under way to develop one, aimed at a genetic disorder that might unravel some of the mysteries of autism along the way.
Chances are you've never heard of the target — Fragile X syndrome — even though it's the most common inherited form of intellectual impairment, estimated to affect almost 100,000 Americans. It's also the most common cause of autism yet identified, as about a third of Fragile X-affected boys have autism.
Now a handful of drugmakers are working to develop the first treatment for Fragile X, spurred by brain research that is making specialists rethink how they approach developmental disorders.
"We are moving into a new age of reversing intellectual disabilities," predicts Dr. Randi Hagerman, who directs the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, a study site.
Fragile X, more common in males than females, ranges from learning disabilities to severe cognitive impairment, along with emotional and behavioral problems. The genetic defect disrupts a basic foundation of learning: How brain cells respond to experiences by forming connections between each other, called synapses. Those structures aren't destroyed — they're too immature to work properly.
"The process of learning is just that much more difficult but not impossible, because there's nothing wrong with the synapse," says Dr. Stephen Warren, an Emory University geneticist who led the discovery of Fragile X's mutated gene.
The experimental drugs have an unwieldy name — mGluR5 antagonists (pronounced EM-gloo-ahr). But they aim to get the brain back on track by simply blocking an overactive receptor that plays a key role in weakened synapses. The goal is to strengthen synapses, to make learning easier and behavior more normal.
These are early-stage studies, beginning in adults to look for side effects. Specialists expect, if they work, any effect would be bigger in children's still-developing brains.
Scientists are watching closely because "this looks like a really promising pathway" for some types of autism, too, says Dr. Andrea Beckel-Mitchener of the National Institute of Mental Health, which, along with the patient advocacy group FRAXA, helped fund the underlying research.
Researchers don't expect a cure: Drugs can't turn back adults' decades of cognitive impairment, Warren cautions.
"I would be very surprised if this has some overwhelming rescue," he says, "but I think you can hope for at least some improvement."
In Alpharetta, Ga., 27-year-old Shawn Helbig is Emory's first test patient. He can read only small words, but first thing each morning Helbig races to swallow the experimental pill and cross off the day's dose on a special calendar. He's excited, his mother says, to be helping.
"I've always pushed him to be everything that he could be," says Sandy Britt, describing her son as higher-functioning, holding a part-time job at a pet store, for example.
Britt hopes for an easing of Helbig's ability to express himself, saying parents watch that frustration boil over into Fragile X's hallmark meltdowns.
"You look at anybody that's got Fragile X and you know they're there. It's like you ask them something and they kind of get lost in their thought," Britt says. "You still have people in this world that, when they see an adult that looks normal ... but they still have very childlike behaviors and sometimes very childlike responses, they poke fun."
What goes wrong in Fragile X? That mutated gene on the X chromosome shuts off production of a brain protein called FMRP. Boys are usually more affected than girls, because they have only one X chromosome while girls have two.
FMRP puts the brakes on other brain proteins. Among other things, its absence allows too much activity by that mGluR5 receptor. Some drug companies already had been exploring drugs to tamp down mGluR5 because it may play a role in anxiety, too.
Now in the Fragile X pipeline:
—New Jersey-based Hoffman-La Roche Ltd. just began a Phase II trial at Emory, UC-Davis and three other hospitals comparing its candidate to a dummy pill in 60 adults with Fragile X.
—Hagerman says results are due soon from Swiss drug maker Novartis AG's similar study in Europe.
—Massachusetts-based Seaside Therapeutics LLC — co-founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Dr. Mark Bear, who made the mGluR5 link — is testing one drug thought to indirectly affect mGluR5 and will open trials of a more targeted one soon.
What's the evidence? The approach worked in mice bred with the Fragile X gene. More startling, when Hagerman gave a single dose of one experimental drug to 12 patients, she measured brain or behavior changes that lasted until the dose wore off in half of them.
Eye contact and language improved, Hagerman recalls; one young man even asked the nurse for a date. "That got us pretty jazzed."

Super Bowl Gambling May Alter Your Brain

Betting on the Super Bowl, roulette, or even online poker can be thrilling, and with the advent of online gambling, it's easier than ever before. Yet winning and losing can have unexpected effects on the brain that keep people coming back for more, scientists are finding.
Betting on the Super Bowl, roulette, or even online poker can be thrilling, and with the advent of online gambling, it's easier than ever before. Yet winning and losing can have unexpected effects on the brain that keep people coming back for more, scientists are finding.
Gamblers sink an increasing sum of money into their efforts to win. Over the last 20 years legalized betting has grown tremendously; it's now a $100 billion industry. More than 65 percent of Americans gamble, according to Gallup's annual Lifestyle Poll conducted last year, and up to 5 percent of those betters develop an addiction to the activity.
"For most individuals, gambling is enjoyable and harmless, but for others, it is as destructive as being addicted to drugs," said Catharine Winstanley, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of Psychology.
Kyle Siler, a sociology doctoral student at Cornell University who studied 27 million poker hands online, told LiveScience: "Gamblers have to be honest with themselves and realize when to walk away and when a bet is profitable—even under conditions of uncertainty."
Why we don't walk away
After a losing hand, putting a wager on a second-place finisher, or seeing two cherries and a gold bar on a slot machine, a gambler becomes less risk averse and more willing to place a bet to get it all back, especially if the individual feels like the defeat was nearly a win.
"Gamblers see near losses as very encouraging and are very likely to continue playing the game," said Luke Clark, a researcher at the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge in England, who published a study on the brain circuitry related to gambling in the journal Neuron last year.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at which parts of the brain are active under certain circumstances, Clark found that when gamblers nearly lose, the parts of their brain that are active are the same ones that are working when they win.
"A near miss is a signal that you're acquiring the skill, so it makes sense that your brain processes them as if they were a win," Clark said in a telephone interview. "In a game of skill like soccer, a near miss might be hitting the post or cross bar."
The problem is when gamblers confuse a game of skill with a game of chance, Clark cautioned, in which nearly winning doesn't help explain what someone should do the next time around.
Odds are stacked for the house in every game, so no matter what psychology is at play, over time everyone will most likely lose. Still, Clark predicts that people who confuse skill and chance, called gambling distortion, are more susceptible to addiction. 
"People find these near misses unpleasant; they find them more aversive than complete misses, but when you ask them how much they want to carry on they want to continue," he said. "They're very distressed by what's happened, but the next thing they do is bet again. We're trying to understand that paradox."

Acupuncture's effects on the brain

A new study about the effects of acupuncture on the brain may shed light on the complex mechanisms of this Eastern healing technique. 

Acupuncture's effects on the brain (Getty Images)
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese method in which thin needles are inserted into the skin at selected spots to treat various ailments. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of York and the Hull York Medical School, indicates that acupuncture has a significant effect on specific neural structures.

When a patient receives acupuncture treatment, a sensation called deqi can be obtained, scientific analysis shows that this deactivates areas within the brain that are associated with the processing of pain. "These results provide objective scientific evidence that acupuncture has specific effects within the brain which hopefully will lead to a better understanding of how acupuncture works," Dr Hugh MacPherson, of the Complementary Medicine Research Group in the University's Department of Health Sciences, said.

Neuroscientist Dr Aziz Asghar, of the York Neuroimaging Centre and the Hull York Medical School, said, "The results are fascinating. Whether such brain deactivations constitute a mechanism which underlies or contributes to the therapeutic effect of acupuncture is an intriguing possibility which requires further research."

Researchers put paid to "baby brain" myth

SYDNEY — Australian researchers said on Friday they had debunked the myth that a women's ability to think was impaired by pregnancy and mothering a newborn -- a condition commonly referred to as "baby brain".
An Australian National University team conducting a 20-year population study on health and ageing analysed the mental function of a group of women before and during pregnancy and in the early stages of motherhood.
"We didn't find any difference between the women before and after pregnancy, or before and after motherhood, and there were no differences between the non-mothers and the mothers, and the pregnant women," lead researcher Helen Christensen told AFP.
The women were given memory and cognitive speed tests three times over eight years as part of the "Path Through Life" study, which is tracking the mental health of a random sample of 7,500 Australians over 20 years.
Christensen said the findings were unique because the women were not told they were being tested for a pregnancy study when they signed up and it was the first time researchers could make a comparison with pre-conception scores.
"You don't have necessarily the biases that you might have if you are just doing a study where you recruit women to a pregnancy study," she said.
"When they're doing the cognitive test they don't know that it's out to prove that they've lost their marbles or otherwise."
According to the study, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, pregnant women were frequently warned about the possibility of short-term memory problems, a condition guidebooks described as "baby brain" or "placenta brain".
"These views are supported by scientific research evidence and systematic reviews," it said.
While the study had found some limited impact on cognitive speed in late pregnancy, Christensen said the results showed that carrying a baby had "pretty much no permanent effects" on a woman's mental function.
"I think that people have the tendency to blame the fact that they're pregnant on normal lapses of memory which happen all the time to us anyway," she said.
Christensen said the findings showed "'placenta brain' is not inevitable, and that perceptions of impairment may reflect emotional or other unknown factors."
"Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries," she said.