The “Electrosensitive” Brain

By Neuroskeptic | July 7, 2017 4:03 am

A strange new paper reports “abnormal” brain activity in 10 patients with electrohypersensitivity (EHS) – a controversial condition allegedly triggered by electromagnetic fields from devices such as phones and power-lines.

But the methods used in this study were very odd.

According to the authors, Gunnar Heuser and Sylvia A. Heuser, the ten patients all suffered from symptoms such as

Headaches, impairment of cognitive function, tremors, weakness, and others. Multi-system complaints were triggered by exposure to cell phones, cell phone towers, smart meters, wi-fi, and other sources

To investigate a possible brain basis of the EHS, the patients had resting state fMRI scanning. Heuser and Heuser say that “all ten patients had abnormal functional MRI brain scans”, but I’m not convinced.

The images in the paper appear to show the functional connectivity of the default mode network (DMN) for each patient. The images supposedly reveal abnormal activity, but no statistics seems to have been used to verify this – someone has just decided that the blobs are too big:

heuser_fmriThis looks like a perfectly normal DMN to me.

Very few details are given of the fMRI scanning protocol or the data analysis pipeline. In fact, it seems that Heuser and Heuser simply sent their patients to be scanned at a commercial facility (MICSC) and then received a report like this:


To evaluate the claims in this report (and this paper), we’d need to know which statistical tests were used; who was in the control group, and how well they matched the patients; whether head movement was accounted for, and many other factors.

What was the point of all this scanning? Heuser and Heuser say that their motive for the study was to “document objective abnormalities in these patients who had often been labeled as psychiatric cases.” However, the presence of resting state fMRI abnormalities doesn’t stop a disorder being classed as psychiatric. There are dozens of studies, by psychiatrists, looking at resting state abnormalities in psychiatric disorders from depression to insomnia to PTSD.

I also have ethical qualms about this paper. For one thing, it was all paid for by the patients themselves: “Since insurance coverage is not yet available for fMRI, patients had to cover the cost of the whole evaluation.” What benefit did they get for their money?

Speaking of money, Heuser and Heuser state that they have no conflicts of interest relating to this paper. But first author Dr. Gunnar Heuser has a website called EMF DOC, where you can book consultations with him (with the help of PayPal) if you suspect that you’ve got electrosensitivity. So Heuser has a financial interest in the concept of EHS, and I think this should have been declared in the paper.

I’m not impressed by what MICSC are doing, either: telling people there’s something wrong with their brain, apparently without any scientific basis.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fMRI, papers, select, Top Posts, woo
  • smut clyde

    The patients refused to be exposed to radioactivity. This of course ruled out positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) brain scanning. This is why we ordered fMRI brain scans on these patients.

    “The participants believe their nervous systems to be extremely vulnerable to a broad spectrum of electromagnetic stimulation, so in accordance with their preferences, we exposed them to intense magnetic and electromagnetic stimulation.”

    • Uncle Al

      Rural Africa enjoys a paucity of electromagnetic everything. That is a study base of at least 50 million people. What conclusions shall we draw from observation?

    • Lee Rudolph

      “[W]e exposed them to intense magnetic and electromagnetic stimulation.”

      Well, at least they said they did so (or at least they say they said so). One might wonder, if one had a nasty, suspicious mind, whether the facilities at which the fMRI scans (at the subjects’ expense!!!) were performed actually performed any such scan. Think of all the money they would have saved not turning on their big fancy machines! Think of all the additional money that could be saved by not even having a genuine fMRI machine; I assume the cost of an impressive mockup is negligible, even for the deluxe model with optional loud-clank module!! Think, think, think.

      I think I’ve got a business plan, there.

  • OWilson

    Folks who live under, or near HV Electrical transmission lines, and complain of out of body experiences, appear to have a sympathetic ear if they visit the research related website. :)

  • Billie Mudry Spaight

    Doubtless people are affected by these unseen forces, whether physically, psychologically, or psychically, but double-blinded, randomized, controlled studies are needed to confirm this. In addition, there needs to be a large enough sample size to determine if any results are significant.

    • John Allsup

      Likely typical ‘double-blinded randomised controlled studies’ will fail to pick up such phenomena if genuine. (Not that I am defending the claimed results here, since I doubt them as much as the critique here does.) When experimental methods are used, measurements taken, and analyses done, one must always take care with regards to what such analyses will tell us, with reliability, and why, and what underlying assumptions are made in the reasoning. Good science experiments are careful to think this stuff through; too many these days skip the hard aspects of this so as to publish more papers more quickly.

      • Billie Mudry Spaight

        Good point. Many of these phenomena and responses to various treatments are hard to capture in double-blinded RCTs. But it’s a good idea to at least try them. I know what you mean. How does one blind acupuncture. Is there a placebo response to sham acupuncture? Energy therapies have the same or worse difficulties. At the very least whatever anecdotal evidence exists should be collected into a registry so that the data can be tested. Case studies in the literature should be analyzed. Surveys can be taken of patients. Also retrospective case analyses. . . .and when all else fails, NONINVASIVE, NONLETHAL animal studies. MRIs, fMRIs, SPECT scans and more. There are many approachs that can be used to try to tease out the data to see if effects exist.

  • John Allsup

    These kinds of studies are _not_, IMHO, any path to conclusive answers about such things. If the brain can detect and amplify EM radiation in this way, what is the mechanism? The first stage, which ought to be built from basic neuroscience upwards, is to show the limits of plausibility, effectively by thinking about the problem of making EM amplifiers using the biological machinery available in a living human skull. The ‘elephant in the room’ problem must mental health researchers seem to bury their heads in the sand over, is that once you have to deal with the complex issue of how a brain’s neurons can be interconnected, and the (beyond astronomical in scale) space of possible qualitatively different configurations, statistical methods cannot deliver reliable results _unless_ there are ways in which the contribution of this complexity can be bypassed. So far as I am aware, maths and statistics are no help here, nor is physics. And nor are there methods from any other discipline either. There is just a relatively blind belief on the part of many researchers that their current methods of analysis and reasoning are sufficient. (The blindness of this belief arises from their lacking the mathematical skills to look at how the methods they use actually work, and understand when and where they do and do not work.)

  • joseph2237

    Eastern medicine has known everything there is to know about eletrohypersensitivity and their meridians for thousands of years. But western scientist can’t bring themselves to admit they are trying to reinvent the wheel. There are even modern doctors who had major success bridging the the two sciences.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Eastern medicine has known everything there is to know about eletrohypersensitivity and their meridians for thousands of years.

      Indeed. In fact, I dare say that it’s known even more than everything there is to know about them.

  • ftgfarm

    smart meters r evil, TrusT me I know what THEY can DO

  • Pingback: 1 – The “Electrosensitive” Brain()

  • jrkrideau

    Does anyone know just how respectable the Review of Environmental Health is?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good question. It’s not a leading journal, by it is PubMed indexed, which is generally (although not always) an indicator of quality. It’s published by De Gruyter who are fairly well known, not predatory.

      I think the problem with this paper is that the journal is not a neuroscience journal. This paper would never make it past peer review in a proper neuroscience journal.

      • jrkrideau

        I did not do a lot of searching but it looked like De Gruyter purchased a publishing company with about 100 journals including this one, that seemed to appear rather quickly (last 10 years?) so.

        It smells a bit but I agree De Gruyter has always seemed very respectable so we probably should give the journal the benefit of the doubt.

        You have more faith in PubMed listings than I do. PubMed does a good job but a fair bit of dross seems to leak through. Given the volumes it handles and the massive proliferation of predatory journal, I am afraid we have to expect it.



No brain. No gain.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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