A new study will investigate whether the use of mobile phones and wireless technologies might affect cognitive development in children. Called the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP), the research willl be led by scientists from Imperial College London and will focus on cognitive functions such as memory and attention, which continue to develop into adolescence.
Seventy percent of 11-12 year olds in the UK now own a mobile phone, rising to 90 per cent by age 14. Most of the research carried out to date on mobile phones has focused on adults and the risk of brain cancers. While there is no convincing evidence that radio wave exposures from mobile phones effect health, scientists remain uncertain as to whether children’s developing brains are more vulnerable than adults’ brains, due to their developing nervous system, enhanced absorption of energy in head tissue, and increased cumulative exposure over their lifetime. The latest World Health Organisation Organization (WHO) radiofrequency agenda highlights this uncertainty, ranking ‘prospective cohort studies of children and adolescents’, including neurocognitive and behavioural outcomes, as a ‘highest priority research need’.
SCAMP is an independent, three-year study commissioned by the Department of Health. It will follow the cognitive development of approximately 2500 year 7 (aged 11-12 years) pupils. Over 160 secondary schools in the outer London area will to receive invitations to take part. 11-12 years is the age at which the majority of children start to own a mobile phone.
Parents and pupils who agree to take part in the study will answer questions about the children's use of mobile devices and wireless technologies, well-being and lifestyle in Year 7 and Year 9. Pupils will also undertake classroom-based computerised tasks measuring various cognitive abilities that underpin functions such as memory and attention.
Current UK health policy guidelines advise that children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only, where possible use a hands-free kit or text and, if calls are really necessary, to keep them short. An NHS leaflet giving this advice was produced in 2011 and that advice still stands.
Dr Mireille Toledano, Principal Investigator of the study, from the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London, explains: “This advice to parents is based on the precautionary principle, given in the absence of available evidence and not because we have evidence of any harmful effects. As mobile phones are a new and widespread technology central to our lives, carrying out the SCAMP study is important in order to provide the evidence base with which to inform policy and through which parents and their children can make informed life choices.
“By assessing the children in year 7 and again in year 9 we will be able to see how their cognitive abilities develop in relation to changing use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies,” added Dr Toledano.
Professor Patrick Haggard, Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and Chair of the SCAMP Steering Committee commented that: “I am delighted that the UK is contributing to this high priority research with the launch of SCAMP, the largest follow-up study of its kind in adolescents worldwide. This study has two particularly valuable aspects: it attempts to estimate the children's exposure to radiofrequency fields as precisely as possible, and it uses a carefully-designed suite of tests to measure many of the key cognitive functions that are developing during adolescence.”
Professor Paul Elliott, Director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London and co-investigator of the study said: “Scientific evidence available to date is reassuring and shows no association between exposure to radiofrequency waves from mobile phone use and brain cancer in adults in the short term (less than 10 years of use). But the evidence available regarding long term heavy use and children’s use is limited and less clear.”
The COSMOS study, the UK arm of which is funded by the Department of Health and also led by Imperial College London, is currently following the health of 290,000 adult mobile phone users for 20-30 years to address the knowledge gap in possible long term health effects of mobile phone use. To date, there are only two studies, both in Europe, focusing on childhood cancers and mobile phone use. One reported no association and the other is ongoing.
Dr Mireille Toledano said: “SCAMP will complement this other research by focusing on the ongoing development of cognitive functions in the brain during adolescence. Cognition is essentially how we think; how we make decisions; and how we process and recall information. It is linked to intelligence and educational achievement and forms the building blocks of the innovative and creative potential of every individual and therefore society as a whole”.