Using a cellphone while driving can be a distracting hazard, but it turns out that simply pressing a cell phone to your ear can cause temporary changes in the brain, according to new research published yesterday by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study suggests that cellphones have a subtle effect on brain cells, but does not shed further light on whether cellphones increase the risk of brain cancer, a subject of fierce debate among researchers. Nor does it link cellphone use to any other brain abnormality.

What it does show, however, is that cellphones lead to a temporary increase in brain cells’ metabolism of sugar, or glucose, in whatever part of the brain that’s closest to the cellphone antenna. The research is the first of its kind to look at that particular area of brain function with regard to cellphone use.
“It’s not a dramatic increase,’’ said study author Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s more in the range of the brain activation that occurs in, say, the language center when you’re speaking.’’

The study was conducted on 47 healthy volunteers who agreed to undergo brain scanning with Positron Emission Tomography — an imaging test that measures cells’ uptake of glucose — while a cellphone connected to a muted call was attached to the right ear for 50 minutes. The PET scan showed about a 7 percent increase in glucose metabolism in brain regions nearest to the cell phone antenna.
“I wish my study could enlighten brain cancer risks,’’ added Volkow. “But we don’t know whether activation from cellphones could be negative, or even whether it could be beneficial.’’

Some 91 percent of Americans use cellphones, averaging 21 minutes a day with a phone — or Bluetooth device — pressed to their ears. The electromagnetic radiation emitted by such devices appears to activate brain cells and increase their metabolism.

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