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Smartphone Use Alters The Human Brain

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Smartphones use is altering the human brain, but not in the sinister way scaremongers would have you believe

The impact of smartphone use on the human brain has been measured by a scientist in Switzerland, who revealed that use of the phone does change the human brain.

However, it is worth noting that this change is not at all like the dire radiation and ‘brain tumour’ predictions of health alarmists over recent years.

Violin Behaviour

It is a scientific fact that violinists have a larger section of the brain that governs the fingers which guide the instrument. Indeed, there is a particular processing area in the emotional centre in the brain, the ‘somatosensory cortex’, that governs the emotional centre in the brain and it can change.

Arko Ghosh from the Institute of Neuroinformatics of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich decided to investigate whether smartphone users, who have similar finger dexterity of violinists, also have an enlarged ‘sensorimotor cortex’. According to EurekAlert, Ghosh discovered that the day-to-day plasticity of the human brain could be researched based on our smartphone usage

texting smartphone SMS ©shutterstock B Calkins“Smartphones offer us an opportunity to understand how normal life shapes the brains of ordinary people,” explains Ghosh, who teamed up with colleagues from the University of Fribourg.

The boffins used an electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the cortical brain activity in 37 right-handed people, of whom 26 were touchscreen smartphone users. Eleven people used used the traditional mobile phone.

The test subjects had 62 electrodes placed on their head to measure the activation in the sensorimotor cortex, which is triggered by finger movements, in this case the thumb, forefinger and middle finger. These electrodes revealed that the cortical representation in touchscreen smartphone users differed compared to people with traditional mobile phones.

Gosh was reportedly able to demonstrate that the frequency of smartphone usage influences cortical activity, very much like a violinist. The more the smartphone had been used in the previous ten days, the greater the signal in the brain. He found that this correlation was the strongest, i.e. proportional, in the area that represented the thumb.

“At first glance, this discovery seems comparable to what happens in violinists,” explains Ghosh. The scientists concluded that unlike violinists, whose activity in the brain is depended on the age at which they started playing, the same is not true of smartphone users.

Their second conclusion is that there is a linear connection between the activation in the brain and the most recent use of a smartphone, while there was no evidence of this for violinists in earlier studies.

“The digital technology we use on a daily basis shapes the sensory processing in our brains – and on a scale that surprised us,” said Gosh.

Health Debate

For years there has been controversy over whether mobile phones cause brain tumours. In 2013, the city of San Francisco reluctantly dropped a controversial ‘radiation labelling scheme’ for new mobile phones.

Yet for years now, some have argued that there has been a rise in the number of brain tumours in recent decades as more and more people use mobile phones. But there is no concrete evidence for this, and study after study has dismissed any such link. Critics and the mobile industry say that health campaigners are simply scaremongering.

Powerwatch, a pressure group which investigates the safety of mobile phones, has previously urged mobile phone companies to more prominently display radiation health warnings. And campaigners have pointed to the World Health Organization, whose cancer experts hedged their bets back in 2011, saying that mobile phones were “possibly carcinogenic”, despite there being no clear scientific evidence to suggest a link between cancer and mobile phone use.

In 2012 an independent report from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) found no conclusive evidence that the radiation emitted from mobile phones poses any health risks, but advised children not to use them too much, to be on the safe side. That report was based on a major survey of all the scientific evidence currently available.

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