Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Burning Sugar in the Brain: Cell Phones Join the Fight Against Obesity

News channels are ablaze with spin on an already spun report of the effects of cell phone radiofrequency (RF) signal on glucose metabolism in the human brain (see:

I'm not going to say that this study is an example of a waste of taxpayer money and research resources, but WOW, what a waste of taxpayer money and research resources.

Firstly, why would anybody go looking for an effect of RF from cell phones on brain glucose metabolism anyway? Answer: Because we have a PET scan, and that's what a PET scan can do -not because we have any good reason to believe that changes in brain glucose metabolism are meaningful in this context. This is an example of the hammer dictating the floorplan of the house. We are looking at glucose metabolism simply because we can, not because we have any remote inkling of what changes in glucose metabolism may mean.

Secondly, this whole topic is deeply permeated by a bias that assumes that cell phones are in some way harmful. To date, with the exception of distracted driving, which incidentally gets nobody excited until a law is proposed to reduce it and thus improve public safety, there is no credible evidence that cell phone radiation is harmful. It may be. But it may also be BENEFICIAL. Who's to say that the increase in brain glucose utilization isn't causing positive effects in the brain? Maybe it's making you smarter. That's just as likely as that it's causing harm, but far less likely than that there is no effect.

Thirdly, the experiment is inadequately controlled. What if you strap a cell phone to somebody's hind end and put them in a PET scanner? Does glucose metabolism of the gluteus maximus increase from the RF signal? If it did, we would have the same problem of interpretation: "What does it mean?" But we might somewhat be able to quell all the hand waving about radio signals altering the function of your brain. No, it's simply altering the biochemistry of your cells in a subtle way of unknown significance.

Here is what news organizations are saying, as proudly promulgated by the publicity intoxicated AMA this morning in their member communication:
"We need to rule out that there is a not long-lasting effect in healthy people." - Nora Volkow, first author of the study. [Of course she thinks that - it means millions more dollars in grants for her.]

The study, "by providing solid evidence that cellphone use has measurable effects on brain activity...suggests that the nation's passionate attachment to its 300 million cellphones may be altering the way we think and behave in subtle ways." - The LA Times. [Really? Really?]

Fortunately, the only thing more powerful than the inherent biases about RF signals from cellphones and the lay public's ignorance about PET scanners, glucose metabolism and the like, is the public's penchant for mobile devices, the latter which will surely overwhelm any concerns about altered sugar burning in the brain, just as it has any concerns about distracted driving.