Electromagnetic fields show potential for therapeutics

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

North Americans are continuously debating the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) found in cell phones, medical imaging devices, and power lines. But new research shows EMFs could have positive effects, with the potential to treat debilitating symptoms in neurological disorders. A study by Lawson Health Research Institute's Dr. Alexandre Legros PhD, is showing EMFs can alter brain activity and physical responses, opening the possibility for therapy.

Legros is an assistant professor in the Departments of Medical Biophysics and Medical Imaging at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University.

The study exposed volunteers to different levels of EMFs at 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 can 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, i.e. the timing of the information transmission between neurons," says Legros. "This may affect what we call synaptic plasticity, a basic support mechanism for learning."

The primary purpose of this research is to help provide more accurate and evidence-based guidelines regarding EMF exposure, for both electricity producers and international regulatory bodies. But Legros is also exploring the possibility of using EMFs therapeutically. It is hoped that EMFs can be further studied to propose non-invasive therapies for people suffering from neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease. By determining the thresholds for physiological responses to EMF exposure and understanding the mechanisms involved, it is likely that these EMFs can be used to stimulate responses for therapeutic use.

"We are seeing effects and if we increase the level of exposure and adapt the signals, we can try to induce predictable effects," explains Legros. "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."

A third phase of the study is currently underway. The main purpose is to establish a threshold for power-line frequency EMF exposure at which there is an instantaneous physiological response in humans. Throughout this phase, the potential for therapeutic translation, human performance enhancement, and possibly even entertainment, continues to be explored.