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Could Cell Phone Radiation be a Cause of Autism?

We are told that as long as radiation is not ionizing, it is not destructive to cells and can therefore do no harm to human and animal physiology. The whole idea of exposure limits is based on this knowledge and a huge increase in communications related technological radiation in the microwave band has been built up in the last few decades. A period of time that also coincides with a huge increase in autism and related developmental disorders. 


The connection escapes both industry and the authorities that are supposed to watch that those technological developments are not harmful to human health. What if they are wrong? What if there is a mechanism by which technological radiation, even below the threshold where it becomes ionizing and starts heating up tissues, can influence physiology?

Andrew Goldsworthy believes that there is such a mechanism. Those low intensity, pulsed, electromagnetic emissions that have grown into a veritable crescendo in the last few decades do indeed disturb the communication of cells - and specifically the neurons of a developing brain. 

Is there a solution?

While Goldsworthy, in his excellent article, suggests a plausible mechanism for how the damage is done, what about a solution. Can we do anything - short of turning back the clock of progress in mobile communication - to make the technology compatible with human health? I believe there is.

With high probability, it is not the presence of radiation as such that is damaging. We have been exposed to natural background radiation for millions of years. What is different now is the addition of what I call the AC/DC effect . 

It has been found that the effect of radiation on calcium channels of cells is not only present in mobile phone and other wireless communication technology, but also in technical radiation emanating from power lines and household appliances. 

The common denominator between the two is a low frequency pulsing of the field. I call it the AC/DC effect because it isn't present in direct current, but it is in alternating current, where electricity is pulsed at a constant 50 and in some areas 60 cycles per second. In communications technologies, the effect isn't present in analog (old time radio and TV, and first generation mobile phone) technology, but it is present in digital mobile technologies. The constant pulse rate in digital communications is what's called a "packet frequency". Information is not transmitted in a constant stream but in little packets of data, about 200 every second, which establishes a constant 200 cycles per second on/off frequency, something cells can "feel" and can react to. 

Randomizing the low frequency pulsing

Admittedly this is somewhat speculative, but if the effect on cellular calcium channels is present in radiation that is pulsed at low frequencies, and if it is only effective in certain windows of amplitude (as explained by Goldsworthy below) then it would make sense that the effect could be eliminated if we were to randomize the packet frequency of transmission. Packets of information transmitted at random intervals would not form a low frequency on/off signal recognizable by living cells. The technological radiation would still be present, but it could blend into the background. True, we'd still have the problem of having a much "louder" background noise of electromagnetic frequencies, but at least there would not be a constant low frequency component that is recognizable by cells and that could disturb their working order.

If you are working in mobile communications, I would like to hear from you, whether you think that such randomization of the signal would be technically possible. Also, if you have access to some of the bigwigs in that field ... tell them about the idea of randomized packet frequencies in mobile communication. Let's see if this cannot be turned around before it is too late. We are already losing a whole generation. Let's not lose our future. 

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Andrew Goldsworthy May 2011


What is autism?

Autism is a group of life-long disorders (autistic spectrum disorders or ASD) caused by brain malfunctions. It is associated with subtle changes in brain anatomy (see Amaral et al. 2008 for a review). The core symptoms are an inability to communicate adequately with others and include abnormal social behaviour, poor verbal and non-verbal communication, unusual and restricted interests, and persistent repetitive behaviour. There are also non-core symptoms, such as an increased risk of epileptic seizures, anxiety and mood disorders. ASD has a strong genetic component, occurs predominantly in males and tends to run in families.


Genetic ASD may be caused by calcium entering neurons

It has been hypothesised that some genetic forms of ASD can be accounted for by known mutations in the genes for ion channels that result in an increased background concentration of calcium in neurons. This would be expected to lead to neuronal hyperactivity, the formation of sometimes unnecessary and inappropriate synapses, which in turn can lead to ASD (Krey and Dolmetsch 2007).


Electromagnetic fields let calcium into neurons too

There has been a 60-fold increase in ASD in recent years, which cannot be accounted for by improvements in diagnostic methods and can only be explained by changes in the environment.  This increase corresponds in time to the proliferation of mobile telecommunications, WiFi, and microwave ovens as well as extremely low frequency fields (ELF) from mains wiring and domestic appliances. We can now explain this in terms of electromagnetically-induced membrane leakage leading to brain hyperactivity and abnormal brain development.


Non-ionising radiation makes cell membranes leak

The first effect of non-ionising electromagnetic radiation is to generate small alternating voltages across the cell membranes, which destabilize them and make them leak. This can have all sorts of consequences as unwanted substances diffuse into and out of cells unhindered, and materials in different parts of the cell that are normally kept separate, become mixed.


Why weak fields are more damaging than strong ones

We have known since the work of Suzanne Bawin and her co-workers (Bawin et al. 1975) that modulated radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation that is far too weak to cause significant heating can nevertheless remove calcium ions (positively charged calcium atoms) from cell membranes in the brain. Later, Carl Blackman showed that this also occurs with extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation (ELF) but only within one or more "amplitude windows", above and below which there is little or no effect (Blackman et al. 1982; Blackman 1990).  A proposed molecular mechanism for this can be found in Goldsworthy (2010). In particular, it explains why weak electromagnetic fields can have a greater effect than strong ones and why prolonged exposure to weak fields (where cells are maintained in the unstable condition for longer) is potentially more damaging than relatively brief exposure to much stronger ones.


How calcium ions stabilize cell membranes

This loss of calcium is important because calcium ions bind to and stabilize the negatively charged membranes of living cells. They sit between the negatively charged components of the cell membrane and bind them together rather like mortar binds together the bricks in a wall. Loss of just some of these calcium ions destabilize the membrane and make it more inclined to leak, which can have serious metabolic consequences. Among these are the effects of membrane leakage on the neurons of the brain.


How membrane leakage affects neurons

Neurons transmit information between one another in the form of chemical neurotransmitters that pass across the synapses where they make contact. However, the release of these is normally triggered by a brief pulse of calcium entering the cell. If the membrane is leaky due to electromagnetic exposure, it will already have a high internal calcium concentration as calcium leaks in from the much higher concentration outside.  The effect of this is to put the cells into hair-trigger mode so that they are more likely to release neurotransmitters and the brain as a whole may become hyperactive (Beason and Semm 2002; Krey and Dolmetsch 2007, Volkow et al. 2011). This may not be a good thing since the brain may become overloaded leading to a loss of concentration and what we now call attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).


How does this impact on autism?

Before and just after its birth, a child's brain is essentially a blank canvas, and it goes through an intense period of learning to become aware of the significance of all of its new sensory inputs, e.g. to recognise its mother's face, her expressions and eventually other people and their relationship to him/her (Hawley & Gunner 2000). During this process, the neurons in the brain make countless new connections, the patterns of which store what the child has learnt. However, after a matter of months, connections that are rarely used are pruned automatically (Huttenlocher & Dabholkar 1997) so that those that remain are hard-wired into the child's psyche. The production of too many and often spurious signals due to electromagnetic exposure during this period will generate frequent random connections, which will also not be pruned, even though they may not make sense. It may be significant that autistic children tend to have slightly larger heads, possibly to accommodate unpruned neurons (Hill & Frith 2003).

Because the pruning process in electromagnetically-exposed children may be more random, it could leave the child with a defective hard-wired mind-set for social interactions, which may then contribute to the various autistic spectrum disorders. These children are not necessarily unintelligent; they may even have more brain cells than the rest of us and some may actually be savants. They may just be held back from having a normal life by a deficiency in the dedicated hard-wired neural networks needed for efficient communication with others.

A useful homology might be in the socialisation of dogs. If puppies do not meet and interact with other dogs within the first four months of their life (equivalent to about two human years), they too develop autistic behaviour. They become withdrawn, afraid of other dogs and strangers, and are incapable of normal "pack" behaviour. Once this four-month window has passed, the effect seems to be irreversible (just like autism). If this homology is correct, it suggests that experiments on dogs could hold the key to the investigation of autism and its possible links with electromagnetic exposure.



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Beason RC, Semm P (2002), Responses of neurons to an amplitude modulated microwave stimulus. Neuroscience Letters 333: 175-178

Blackman CF (1990), ELF effects on calcium homeostasis. In: Wilson BW, Stevens RG, Anderson LE (eds) Extremely Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields: the Question of Cancer. Battelle Press, Columbus, Ohio, pp 189-208

Blackman CF, Benane SG, Kinney LS, House DE, Joines WT (1982), Effects of ELF fields on calcium-ion efflux from brain tissue in vitro. Radiation Research 92: 510-520

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Krey JF, Dolmetsch RE (2007) Molecular mechanisms of autism: a possible role for Ca2+ signaling. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 17: 112-119

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