Electromagnetic Applications In Biology and Medicine

Examining the subtle and complicated relationship between living organisms and electromagnetic fields.
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The topic of electromagnetism can be both confusing and controversial, yet I find it intriguing and fascinating. The history of electromagnetic field (EMF) application and research has been mired in secrecy and suspicion, none more so than early government-sponsored projects whose activities were never clearly described. Before we begin to construct a working model for EMF usage in medicine and health, we will review some important fundamental terms and parameters.

A magnetic field (MF) is a magnetic force that extends out from a magnet and can be either static or dynamic. These MFs are produced by electric currents and specifically as a result of electron movement in 1 (DC) or 2 (AC) directions. In AC current, the electricity is moving back and forth and, as a result, produces a dynamic magnetic field. The greater the current, the greater the magnetic field. An EMF by definition refers to a dynamic or fluctuating MF and contains both an electric and a magnetic field. A specification that often is referenced is the rate or frequency of electromagnetic energy, which refers to the number of fluctuations and is expressed in hertz or cycles per second. Another important parameter used to describe or characterize an EMF is the wavelength, and because EMFs are typically conceptualized as waves with peaks and troughs, the wavelength is the distance between crests of a wave.

A DC current has a zero frequency in contrast to gamma and cosmic rays, which by comparison, have a very high frequency. All EMFs are capable of traveling through space at a great distance and can exert effects from afar. These fields carry energy and can be described either in terms of particles (photons) or waves, demonstrating characteristics of both. It is important to note that photons are packets of energy that can vary in terms of the amount of energy they carry. The energy level of a photon is related to the frequency it carries, with higher frequency photons having higher energy levels. The Figure depicts how the electromagnetic spectrum and visible light forms a small portion of the total spectrum.

Figure 1: The Electromagnetic Specturm

Medical Biophysics

Another important distinction we should make is that of endogenous fields (produced in the body) versus exogenous fields (produced outside of the body). These exogenous fields can be further subdivided into natural fields (earths geomagnetic field) versus artificial or man-made fields, such as transformers, electricity lines, medical devices, appliances, and radio transmitters. In medical biophysics, an ionizing EMF (gamma or x-rays) refers to radiation energy strong enough to disrupt the cell nucleus and dislodge electrons from a molecule.

Ionization has been described in a continuum of strength from very strong to very weak. High-energy (high frequency) gamma and x-rays have high ionizing potential, whereas visible light radiation has weak ionizing capabilities. Various types of radiation exposure are of concern, including acute (short duration) exposure to high-energy fields, which have been extensively studied. However, just as or possibly more important are the more prolonged (longer duration) exposures to non- or weak ionizing radiation found in common household, work, and recreational applications. Prolonged exposure to what is generally considered or classified as, nonionizing radiation in the low frequency range (300-10,000 Hz), to extremely low frequency (ELF; 1-300 Hz) range, is an important question that we will consider.

Paradoxical Responses

Although it has been known that prolonged exposures to strongly ionizing EMFs can cause significant damage in biological tissues, recent epidemiologic studies have implicated long-term exposures to low-frequency, oscillating, nonionizing, exogenous EMFs—such as those emitted by power lines—as having health hazards. At the same time, there have been discoveries through research that also suggest that ELF radiation can have therapeutic healing effects in tissue.

Similar to the “specificity” seen in drugs (in that, a certain drug will target a set of receptors leading to a therapeutic effect), so too can electromagnetic radiation be configured in such a manner that leads to a specific effect(s). The configuration process has had a logical starting point, that is, observe what endogenous tissue electrical currents presently look like. When we examine biological currents, such as nerve/muscle activity, cardiac discharge, and brain electrical activity using electromyography, electrocardiography, or electroencephalography, respectively, one cannot help but speculate as to the nature of the intelligence being carried by the weak EMFs being created.

The exploration of this phenomenon could have great diagnostic and therapeutic value. It has been proposed that alterations in the endogenous EMF of cells and tissue may lead to disease, with restoration of correct EMFs leading to tissue healing. Physical corrections aside, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that psychological “auto correction” is possible, meaning that we are capable of self-regulating and correcting our individual electromagnetic profile.

Furthermore, because all living matter emits some level of radiation via our endogenous EMFs, this might help explain the positive effects of many forms of therapies from positive imagery and biofeedback to acupuncture and polarity work. For those readers who have a difficult time understanding or appreciating the possibility of paradoxical responses, that is, how electromagnetic radiation can be both very good and/or very bad for us, we use a pharmacotherapy analogy for clarification. It is difficult to imagine a historically more therapeutically important drug than penicillin in terms of the number of lives it has saved and the morbidity spared by its use. Even so, 15% to 20% of the population is allergic to it, and a small but significant proportion of these people will have an anaphylactic reaction to the drug, placing them at risk for hospitalization and even death. Despite this unusual sensitivity to the drug, it continues to be an important medication with well-defined benefits.

In the same manner, a similar phenomenon exists regarding electric or electromagnetic radiation. There are probably susceptible individuals in the population who react adversely to electromagnetic radiation within certain frequency ranges based on their unique endogenous electromagnetic profile. This susceptibility factor will be discussed in a later section. An example of the paradoxical effect might be the case of melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland and thought to regulate biorhythms. Melatonin is known to be oncostatic, stopping certain cancer growth. Low levels of pulsed electro-magnetic field (PEMF) application has been demonstrated to suppress melatonin, thus suppressing an anti-cancer effect and interrupting circadian functions such as sleep. A natural area for study would be to identify how altering the electromagnetic dosage or configuration might stimulate melatonin production, thereby ameliorating sleep dysfunction or the jet lag experience.1

First published on: April 30, 2011