Health researchers make a double play

New Canadian research on the health and safety impacts of electromagnetic fields creates hope for less-invasive therapies for advanced Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Alexandre LegrosDr. Alexandre Legros with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) device

  • Principal Investigator, Lawson Health Research Institute
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Medical Biophysics-Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and School of Kinesiology, Western University, London, Ontario

Associates and partners

  • Dr. Alex Thomas
    • Director - Bioelectromagnetics Group, CIHR University-Industry Chair in Bioelectromagnetics, Lawson Health Research Institute
    • Associate Professor, Departments of Medical Biophysics and Medical Imaging, Western University, London, Ontario
  • Dr. Julien Modolo
    • Post-doctoral Fellow, Lawson Health Research Institute
    • Post-doctoral Fellow, Western, University, London, Ontario
  • Hydro-Québec (Canada)
  • Electricité de France (EDF - France)
  • Réseau de transport d'électricité (RTE - France)
  • Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI - U.S.)
  • MITACS (Canada)
  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR - Canada)

Issue

Canadians wonder whether devices like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) machines, cell phones or power lines are safe to use or will affect their work environment. New knowledge is emerging from Canadian research to answer these questions.

Studies have shown that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) used in these technologies can generate changes in human motor (movement), cardiovascular (heart and breathing), cognitive (mental) responses and normal brain activity. However, much of the scientific research looking at systematic thresholds above which acute effects occur is from the 1980s. These data are needed to document the safety limits for general exposure to low-level and high-level EMFs and for their use in medical therapies.

Regulating bodies and electricity producers are keen to have independent research that can help inform more accurate and evidence-based guidelines for exposure to these sorts of magnetic fields. Power producers/distributors in Europe and North America will continue to update their networks in coming years.

Research

Dr. Legros of the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario has led two major, multidisciplinary research investigations into the impact of low-level and high-level, time-varying EMFs on brain activity and physical behaviour. His 2008 project received an Industry Partnered Collaborative Research (IPCR) grant from CIHR.

Each project has exposed real people (all volunteers) to a different level of time-varying EMFs, using both a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) device and a custom, whole-body magnetic field exposure system in two different experiments. Each volunteer is run through a series of cognitive and physical tests – once with the EMF exposure from the MRI or the exposure system and once without any exposure. Several levels of exposure have been tested at the frequency that is used by the electrical grid in North America (60 Hz).

By using this stepped approach, Dr. Legros and his team are providing valuable information on changes in brain activity and physical behaviour at gradually increasing levels of EMF exposure. This will enable the research to better meet the needs of regulators seeking to set various thresholds for safe exposure.

"What's also exciting is that we're seeing that even low-level EMF exposure seem to alter brain plasticity or the ability of the brain to 'learn,'" says Dr. Legros. Phase III of the project – funded in part by a 2011 IPCR grant from CIHR – will monitor volunteers' brain activity with an MRI and electroencephalography (recording brain electric activity) while they undergo the physical and perceptual tests with and without EMF exposure. This will give researchers greater insights into which areas of the brain can be modified by low-level and high-level, time-varying EMF exposures and open up avenues for possible methods of treatment using some form of this technology.

Results

This groundbreaking research by Dr. Legros and his team is generating impact in two areas.

  • Enhancing public and worker safety by informing current updates to international guidelines regarding exposure to EMFs. The International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiations Protection (ICNIRP) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have both expressed formal interest in tracking and incorporating Dr. Legros' findings on low-level and high-level EMFs.
  • Improving health outcomes and quality of life by raising the possibility that low-level and high-level EMFs could be used to create non-invasive therapies for people suffering from advanced cases of Parkinson's disease and other conditions that interfere with the healthy operation of the brain.

Often as these diseases progress, medications sometimes lose their effect, leaving patients to suffer from body tremors and other debilitating symptoms. At present, treatment choices are limited. One option – Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) – requires highly invasive surgery and is only suitable for some patients.

By using EMF, Dr. Legros hopes researchers can come up with a safer, less invasive, and less costly alternative that could reach more patients.

"Eventually maybe there can be a device that Parkinson's patients could attach to their head for one hour each day and use specifically designed time-varying magnetic fields to modify their brain activity in ways that would calm some of their symptoms," explains Dr. Legros. "Such a device could really improve the quality of their day-to-day lives."

Dr. Legros leads a multidisciplinary team that includes training opportunities for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. He and other members of the team give lectures on their research methods at Western University.

"Our funding partners are excited about these findings and encouraging us to publish the results freely," says Dr. Legros. "Their primary interest is in enhancing the overall safety of the electrical industry. They are not looking at licenses or patents for the potential therapeutic uses. These are simply an added bonus for the benefit of Canadians and people around the world."

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