While the debate rages over the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF), found in everything from cell phones, medical imaging devices and power lines, one Western researcher sees potential beyond the controversy.
A study by Alexandre Legros, a professor in Western’s Department of Medical Biophysics and School of Kinesiology, shows EMFs can alter brain activity and physical responses, opening the possibility of therapy for disorders such as Parkinson’s.
Originally set out to provide data for electricity producers and international regulatory bodies, Legros soon found his research taking a whole new direction.
“This is what’s scientifically exciting; what can we do that is new has positive applications,” said Legros, a Lawson Health Research Institute scientist. “It’s what’s motivating me. Trying to find application that may facilitate learning, facilitate memory or find some kind of stimulation that may improve symptoms in Parkinson’s disease. It’s far down the road, but they are there.”
In the study, Legros looked at the same frequency range (i.e. the number of times the magnetic field is oscillating per second, measured in Hz), which was set at 50-60 hertz (Hz), the frequency used by the electrical grid in North America. One investigation used an MRI machine while the other used a custom, whole-body exposure system. Each volunteer was then given a series of cognitive and physical tests, once with EMF exposure and once without.
Results showed both low- and high-level EMF exposure could affect brain activity. In one test, volunteers were asked to rhythmically tap their thumb and index finger together, both before and after being exposed to an EMF at a level 30,000 times higher than normal.
As a consequence of exposure, a small part of the brain involved in touch perception showed increased activity, suggesting a higher sensitivity to touch at the tip of the fingers.
Exposure also had an effect on memory performance. Under normal circumstances, practicing a memory task several times in a row leads to performance improvement. However, when asked to memorize a list of numbers every 30 minutes, volunteers exposed to the EMF did not improve.
“At these high exposure levels, the magnetic field may interfere with the timing of synaptic communication, or the timing of the information transmission between neurons,” Legros said. “This may affect what we call synaptic plasticity, a basic support mechanism for learning.”
Legros is looking to further study EMFs to propose non-invasive therapies, for people suffering from neurological disorders, by determining the thresholds for physiological responses to EMF exposure and understanding the mechanisms involved,
He added once this threshold is found – which he’s determined to be somewhere between 10-50 milliTesla (the measurement of the ‘intensity’ or ‘amplitude’ of the magnetic field) it is likely that these EMFs can be used to stimulate responses for therapeutic use.
“We believe the exposure, or stimulation, can modulate the timing of the neuron firing,” Legros said. “If we are right, we can have an impact on synaptic plasticity and, therefore, have an impact on the efficiency of the brain in specific functions.
“We are seeing effects, and if we increase the level of exposure and adapt the signals, we can try to induce predictable effects. Eventually, there could be a non-invasive device that delivers specifically designed EMFs to modify brain activity, with the potential to calm neurological symptoms and improve quality of life.”