Tag Archives: brain

Is Cell Phone Use Linked to Brain Cancer?

Cell phones are in the news again. The World Heath Organization says they may be associated with brain cancer. This immediately brings to mind a picture of people with aluminum foil wrapped around their heads (probably from an old “Saturday Night Live” skit). Many of us probably would get out the aluminum foil before giving up our beloved cell phones.

Is cell phone radiation worth worrying about or simply the Alarming Headline of the Week?

Finding out increased risk for any exposure, including cell phones, is all about the numbers. Really big numbers give us the statistical power to find even tiny risks. There are 4.3 billion cell phone users on the planet. That should certainly be enough to find some answers.

Businessman on the phonephoto © 2010 yago1.com Yago Veith – Switzerland | more info (via: Wylio)One of the problems with the whole cell phone radiation-brain cancer debate is the use of the word “radiation,” which is used for anything from cell phones to Fukushima. Radiation from nuclear sources is ionizing radiation. This radiation breaks down DNA and is a known risk for cancer. Cell phones emit radiation of an entirely different type. Cell phones emit low-level microwave radiation which is non-ionizing.

You are surrounded by microwave radiation all day, and you practically can’t find a microwave-free place on the planet (maybe a really deep mine shaft, but that offers dangers of its own).

You probably heated your coffee this morning in a microwave oven, then drove to work listening to broadcast FM radio, which is a microwave signal. The GPS in your car works on a microwave satellite signal. Your computer could be hooked to a Wi-Fi network (microwave), and your Bluetooth mouse is also a microwave emitter. Your garage door opener uses microwaves as well as your satellite TV. Your cordless landline phone generates microwaves – all in addition to your cell phone.

If microwave radiation exposure was smoking, we would all be 100 packs-a-day smokers. At that level, it wouldn’t take three months to find a cancer risk. But interesting enough, the brain cancer rate is stable or decreasing over the last 30 years despite the enormous increase in microwave radiation.

The World Heath Organization came to its conclusion based on a small study by Swedish scientists. The study showed an apparent association between cell phone use and a brain tumor called gliomas.

This conclusion has generated tremendous controversy in the scientific community. To start, there is no theoretical basis for microwave radiation to cause tumors. We have a lot of experience with carcinogens, and they have mechanisms that make sense. They damage or modify DNA (the blueprint of life). Microwave radiation doesn’t affect DNA in any way known. So while the lack of a mechanism doesn’t disprove anything, it sure makes the scientific community question the finding.

Other studies, one involving 14 nations, found no increase in brain cancer from cell phone use.

Where do we go from here? One thing I know for sure: we can count on many more studies on this issue and a lot more conversation.

Take care,

Dr. B

Where Are My Car Keys?

Who hasn’t asked themselves that question?

My car keysphoto © 2007 Reiner Schubert | more info (via: Wylio)

On an increasingly frequent basis, I find myself utterly at a loss for what movie I saw last week or where I put my cell phone. I’ve even accused my phone of teleportation – and then seriously questioned the health of my brain.

How is it I can remember some trivial and insignificant detail from 20 or 30 years ago and not what I had for dinner two days ago? Am I losing my mind – is this the first dreaded sign of Alzheimer’s?

Life is a challenge for most people because they have never been this age before, at least not that they remember. I am an expert at being 40 (and unfortunately at being 50), but 55 remains a mystery, although not for long.

The brain of most people weighs about three pounds – even Einstein’s. It is made of something like 100 billion neurons. Each neuron connects to hundreds of other nerve endings. The connections in your brain number roughly 1 quadrillion (that’s 1000 trillion or 10 to the 15th power). My brain hurts just thinking about that number.

A fatty substance called myelin insulates these connections and acts like the plastic coating on a wire. Short circuits are called seizures. Fortunately, you don’t need to understand the brain’s owner’s manual to operate one.

With aging, some neurons die. You start with all you get and go down from there. What a completely depressing thought. There is a tiny but measurable decrease in brain mass with increasing age. As these cells die, their connections are lost, resulting in some data loss. The brain continually rewires itself, constantly establishing new “work-around” for the lost cells. It is actually more remarkable what we remember, rather than what we forget. Remember this is a biological system, not a supercomputer.

Studies have shown that as brains age, long-term memories are maintained the best. Recent or new memory formation is the most affected. Several long philosophical ruminations occur at this point, but you may peruse that on you own.

Now it gets interesting. Everyone has heard we live in a small portion of our brain, something like 30 percent. There is a huge range of “normal” among adults with healthy brains. What feels like normal to me might feel like the mother of all hangovers to some master mathematician or particle physicist.

We have been collecting vast amounts of data our whole lives. Much of the data is meaningless. Do you really need to remember every parking space you selected in your life or every word you’ve spoken or heard? The data is there, somewhere. Since it is never used, it is given low priority by the brain. The less unique the memory, the harder it is to retrieve. The less a memory is used, the harder it is to recall. Use it or lose it (your mind that is).

The sheer mass of data makes us all feel like an Alzheimer’s candidate. Everyone forgets where he or she parks, but no one forgets the color of their car.

Brain health is a lot like body heath. The brain likes to be exercised (Sudoku anyone?). It’s utterly dependent on good blood flow and oxygen, so we want to keep atherosclerosis away. Everyone talks about classical music exposure in utero, but it’s hard to fix that now. Personally, I think rock works better – it makes mom move, which keeps the blood flowing.

These mental glitches are part of the human experience. One study of neurologists found 60 percent had what they considered real symptoms of brain disease – and these guys are pretty smart. They could lose a few neurons and miss them less than I would.

Fortunately, dementia is not hiding behind every lost car key or car. In fact, considering the complexity of the brain, it is perhaps more amazing that it works as well as it does.

Take care,

Dr. B

Head Injuries in Young Athletes

Nearly 1.2 million young athletes play football in the United States each week. Fifty percent of them are likely to have a concussion some time in their high school playing career. Thirty-five percent will have more than one head injury. Which one will be mild, improving uneventfully, and which will result in severe disability is impossible to predict.

Cosmos vs. Diablas football game in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA _K8P0872photo © 2007 Mike Baird | more info (via: Wylio)

We have learned over the last few years that these injuries are more frequent and have an effect on the injured athlete for a much longer period of time than previously thought. Recent research tells us these young people are at much greater risk to develop problems later from seemingly mild head injuries.

More young people are participating in organized sports than ever. There are intrinsic differences in the young athlete that make them more vulnerable to injury because both the brain and body are still growing and have not reached their full mature potential. Approximately 60,000 sports-related head injuries occur to high school athletes each year. High school football has been compared to notoriously dangerous jobs such as coal mining.

Part of the challenge for responsible adults working with young athletes is the athlete’s lack of maturity and experience. It creates greater liability for injury and difficulty in even recognizing subtle yet important signs. Young athletes often hide their injury or pain because of the eagerness to return to play, avoid embarrassment, not let their team down or try to meet unrealistic expectations. This is particularly important with head injuries as there may be no visible sign of the injury. The athlete may deny their symptoms of headache, confusion, dizziness with a determined attitude to return to play.

Research over the last couple years has pointed to the importance of subtle signs which may be the only clue. Even seemingly mild blows to the head may lead to more serious injury. Certainly repeated small injuries increase the risk of serious complications.

The exact cause of concussions is not well understood but there are some recognizable patterns in symptoms and behavior. Common symptoms of post concussion syndrome include:

• Headache
• Dizziness
• Fatigue
• Memory loss
• Light sensitivity
• Difficulty concentrating

X-ray skullphoto © 2010 Erich Ferdinand | more info (via: Wylio)

Behavior can be minimally or profoundly affected by head trauma. Personality change, irritability or anxiety is not unusual. Other changes can be difficulty regulating emotions, poor coordination, or temporary learning disability. The precise cause of symptoms remains unclear and is a source of disagreement among researchers.

More emphasis on preventing these common but serious injuries is needed. This must include attention to good technique and understanding how to play the game well. Knowing the rules and use of proper protective equipment is also mission-critical.

We have learned that rest of both mind and body is important to allow the brain to heal. There is no exact formula for this. Each person must be cautiously evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Working together with your healthcare provider to formulate a plan for rest and transitional activity can ensure a rapid recovery and help prevent future injury.

– Bruce Kaler, M.D.