This Is Your Brain on a Cell Phone

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

This Is Your Brain on a Cell Phone

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

This Is Your Brain on a Cell Phone
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Nov. 3 1999 10:24 AM

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

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Wired News had an unsettling story this morning: A University of Washington researcher has found that cell phones appear to cause long-term-memory loss in laboratory rats. Yes, yes, I know what you're going to ask--what are lab rats doing talking on the phone? Actually, it's even weirder than that. Dr. Henry Lai, a research professor in bioengineering in Seattle, first put 100 rats into a tank of water and "taught them to swim to a platform in the middle of the tank," WN reports. (How do you teach 100 rats to swim? You start with teensy-tiny water wings, I guess.) Then, after the rats knew the route, Lai confused them by dumping powdered milk into the water, making it harder to navigate--the rats had to make it to the platform by memory, rather than by sight. Finally, after the long-suffering rodents had learned the route, Lai bombarded half the rats with microwaves similar to the kind that's emitted from mobile phones. Not surprisingly, the poor rats couldn't remember the way to the platform after that. It got even worse when Lai removed the platform: The unbombarded rats swam to the place where it should be and looked around with concern; the cellular rats just swam around randomly, like members of the Royal family at the beach.

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I could see this one really upsetting the digerati. For years, people have shrugged off suggestions that cell phones could cause certain kinds of tumors. (I was interviewing an engineer recently who referred to GSM phones as "brain fryers"--he laughed when he said that.) A link between cell-phone use and brain cancer ... big deal. It's only death. But a suggestion that cell-phone use makes us dumber? That could be serious trouble for the cell-phone industry.

Of course, it's impossible to say at this point if the results from Lai's experiment will extrapolate to humans. Other research will need to be conducted (rats in a tank of juice, I guess, followed by a vat of beer). Also, Wired says the radio transmissions are slightly different from the type used by cellular phones. Still, I figured that you, as president and founder of the Cell Phone Haters Club, would want to be aware of this development so you can disseminate it (how? Carrier pigeon?) to your members.

Joshua Quittner is Time's technology columnist and editor of Time Digital. Michelle Slatalla writes a weekly column about online shopping for the New York Times "Circuits" section. They are the authors of Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace (click here to buy it).