Cell Phone Use Alters Brain Activity

My cell phone is broken and, as I haven’t had time to get a new one, I had a phone-free day today. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that we all might want to think twice about using our cell phones too much.


The JAMA study has found that less than an hour of cell phone usage is linked to an increase in activity in the parts of the brain that are closest to the phone antenna. But, scientists caution, whether this increased brain activity is harmful has yet to be determined.

Led by Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers from the National Institutes of Health asked 47 participants to undergo positron emission tomography, or PET, scans, which is used to measure brain glucose metabolism, a marker of brain activity. The research was conducted in 2009.

Each participant underwent two 50-minute scans with a cell phone fitted on each ear. During one scan, the cellphones were not turned on on; during the second scan, the cell phone on the right ear was activated to receive a call from a recorded message (the sound on the phone was turned off, to avoid auditory stimulation). Says the New York Times in a review of the study:

Whether the phone was on or off did not affect the overall metabolism of the brain, but the scans did show a 7 percent increase in activity in the part of the brain closest to the antenna. The finding was highly statistically significant, the researchers said. The researchers said that the activity was unlikely to be associated with heat from the phone because it occurred near the antenna rather than where the phone touched the head.

The JAMA study is the ‘first and largest to document’ that even the weak electromagnetic signals from cell phones—which have been previously thought to be ‘benign’—can change brain activity. While it does not consider health concerns such as brain tumors (which a few observational studies have linked to heavy cell phone usage) and cancer, the study is likely to ‘reignite a debate’ about the safety of cellphones. 

Unfortunately this particular study does not enlighten us in terms of whether this is detrimental or if it could even be beneficial,” Dr. Volkow said. “It just tells us that even though these are weak signals, the human brain is activated by them.”…Most major medical groups, including the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration, have said the existing data on cellphones and health has been reassuring, particularly a major European study released last year by the World Health Organization that found no increased risk of rare brain tumors among cellphone users.

Nonetheless, as the New York Times says, some doctors, including the former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center and some well-known neurosurgeons, have urged people to use headsets as a precaution. As University of Washington bioengineering professor Henry C. Lai  writes in an editorial accompanying the JAMA study:

“The bottom line is that it adds to the concern that cellphone use could be a health hazard….Everybody is worried about brain cancer and the jury is still out on that question. There are actually quite a lot of studies showing cellphone radiation associated with other events, like sleep disturbances. But people have not been paying a lot of attention to these other types of studies.”

And I do have to say that, study or not, I’m getting a new phone tomorrow. 21st century parenting is pretty nigh impossible without a cell phone, to stay in touch with my son’s teachers and school and with my husband. One of my relatives gave me a Bluetooth device for the holidays and maybe I ought to think of using it? 


Photo by compujeramey.


Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Leigh Everett
Leigh Everett6 years ago

Carol K

It's good that you don't over use your mobile phone, but if you're going to switch it off in public or even leave it at home, what exactly is the point of having one when nobody can contact you on it. The people who are oblivious to their surroundings are the same people who are disconnected to the world by means of a walkman, for example (now MP3 players and phones), and something that annoys me also, is someone who is engrossed in their book and when I try to ask them something they don't even acknowledge my existence. Personally, I don't see any difference. However, I don't agree 100% with the danger of phoning when driving. Obviously, if you are holding the phone it IS dangerous just like if you are smoking a cigarette or eating something while driving, but if you have a hands free kit I don't see where there is more danger than having a passenger. In fact, I find having a passenger MORE dangerous because not only do you speak to them but you tend to look at them as well, instead of concentrating on the road. At least with a hands free kit you don't have that temptation. Maybe it should be illegal to have passengers while driving. Only joking, but I just wanted to point out how a lot of laws are made by people who don't really think things out properly. All they think about is how they can fine you for something in order to fill the states bank accounts.

jessica w.
jessica w6 years ago

Thanks for the info

Manuela B.
Manuela B6 years ago

They are a worry, but who could live without them once they've had one.... not many i know.

dve d.
aa b6 years ago


wizzy wizard
wiz wi6 years ago

agree with you

Veronika Sadilkova

I do have a cell phone. But most of the time it lies untouched on my table.

V C.
Veronica C6 years ago

Originally, cell phones were not meant to be overused the way they are now, so the safety wasn't an issue. For those constantly on one, there could be problems. We should put them down and see what's going on around us anyway.

Caroline L.
Caroline L6 years ago

None of this matters to me because I don't use cell phones. I do all my work and messaging on the net. But my sister has a phone glued to her head 24/7 so I will pass this along to her. I don't think it will matter, though... people who are hooked on phones are unwilling to stop. Perhaps a rehab in the future?

Carole K.
Carole K6 years ago

Moderation in everything is always wise. There's no way I would ever use my phone more than a half hour a day every day. And when I'm in public, out of perhaps old fashioned courtesy to others, I turn my phone off & on short in-town trips, I leave my phone home. I see so many ppl who look like phone-to-ear is a natural new appendage. They go around like that way too much & are oblivious to their immediate real surroundings. Don't get me started on use of cell phone while driving! This behavior often presents potential danger to self & others even if the increased brain activity as described in this article is totally benign.