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Cognitive, psychomotor and memory functions

Cognition includes all mechanisms of information processing in the brain that are related to perception and recognition. Cognitive skills include for example attention, discrimination, learning ability, ability to abstract, creativity, planning, orientation and executive control. Psychomotor functions are psychological processes (e.g. emotion, concentration, individual personality characteristics) that have an impact on motor functions and kinesic behavior. Memory functions describe the ability of the nervous system to store, organize and retrieve incoming information. The ability to build up memory is an indicator for neuronal plasticity and the basis for learning processes. The human brain is in charge of all cognitive, psychomotor and memory functions. Similarly as the effects of mobile radio exposure on the brain activity (see chapter EEG/brain activity), it is arguable if mobile radio exposure can affect the cognitive functions due to the close proximity of the mobile phone to the head during a call. In that context, brain activity and brain functions are closely interlinked and research on both topics complements one another.

To assess the effects of electromagnetic fields on memory, cognitive and psychomotor functions, studies are performed on humans and animals. These include attention and concentration tests, tests on cognitive information processing speed and learning and memory tests.

At international level, the World Health Organization (WHO), in its last short statement (Fact sheet № 193, 2014), did not see sufficient evidence of adverse health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in view of studies on cognitive functions. The International Commission on non-ionizing radiation protection (ICNIRP, 2009, p.257) does not see any consistent effect on cognitive performance in a synopsis of studies, either. Accordingly, studies with larger numbers of human subjects or animals generally show no effect. If anything, any effect is small and exposure seems to improve performance rather than worsen it.

At European level, the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks of the EU (SCENIHR, 2015, p.127) sees likewise no solid effect on cognitive functions. Following SCENIHR, when an effect was found, it was only observed in few parameters from a multitude, and the results are not consistent between studies.

The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN, 2014, p.37) in Switzerland sees no health-relevant effects from radiofrequency fields on the cognitive performance. However, the FOEN indicates that this only applies to short-term consequences and that the weak effects on the brain activity, which are deemed as sufficiently evident by the FOEN (see EEG/brain activity), might induce health-relevant effects in people who are already in poor health.

The German Commission on Radiological Protection (SSK, 2011, p.25 ff) cannot see any consistent evidence for effects on cognitive functions, either. However, it notes that further research is needed. In future studies, special attention should be paid to factors which might bias the result, like e.g. consumption of drinks with caffeine or alcohol, the motivation of subjects, sequence and duration of tests as well as the time of day. For instance, Sauter et al. (2011) could show that after correction for multiple testing, only the time of day but not the exposure had an influence on the results of cognitive tests.

To summarize, it can be concluded, that international and national expert committees do not see sufficient evidence for effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on cognitive functions. A new and detailed opinion from the WHO regarding effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields is expected in 2016 (Fact sheet № 193, 2014).

Further information and a survey of all experimental studies on cognitive, psychomotor and memory functions can be found in the study overview on mobile phones of the EMF-Portal.