Can electromagnetic waves like those produced by common appliances and wireless devices, including cell phones and WiFi routers, change the way we perceive our environment; modify our posture, coordination, and balance; and modulate overall brain function and internal systems like sleep? Some researchers say yes, and, knowing what I do about the retina, retinal processing, and advanced optometric science, I am inclined to agree with them.
Obviously, with the exception of the small portion of the energy spectrum known as “visible light,” we cannot “see” electromagnetic waves. They represent forms of energy traveling through space at different frequencies and lengths. Indeed, the heart muscle itself creates an endogenous electromagnetic field because of its electrical activity.
However, scientists writing in 2021 for one of the publications of IEEE Xplore indicate “the constant influence of…[electromagnetic] waves [can cause] changes to occur in organisms. An increase in a number of human diseases has been reported [in those] exposed to constant [electromagnetic] radiation, especially [at] greater power.” The authors add that electromagnetic radiation can disturb the immune system. In fact, “high intensity” electromagnetic radiation can “lead to non-specific suppression of immunogenesis, stimulate antibody formation and the autoimmune response, and [promote} changes in genes.”
Not at all surprising.
At the Mind-Eye Institute, our team has long known retinal tissue is stimulated by – and reacts to – both visible light and non-image-forming energy, namely ultraviolet rays, infrared light, and electromagnetic radiation. In fact, studies show that important signaling pathways are opened through non-image-forming retinal sensors, and these pathways link to key structures in the brain – structures that regulate basic physical, physiological, and even psychological processes involved in motor control, posture, mood, circadian rhythms, and decision-making capabilities. Of course, the retina, which is composed of brain tissue, serves as the brain’s primary link to the outside world and plays a significant role in the central nervous system.
Interestingly enough, increasing scientific evidence suggests retinal cells – namely, rods and cones responsible for converting light into electrical signals and sending them to the brain – also serve as magnoreceptors, able to detect magnetic fields. And research, published in 2018 in the Bratislava Medical Journal, contends “eye cells recognize electromagnetic fields as a stress factor, and in response, activate [specific] gene expressions. The results confirm that radiofrequency electromagnetic field can cause cellular damage…”
Other investigators write, “Exposure of the eye to microwave radiation can lead to an intraocular temperature increase sufficient to damage tissues…The eye of mammalian species does not efficiently remove heat.”
Of course, the potential impact of electromagnetic radiation is not limited to the eye and the retina. Electromagnetic fields affect the hairs in the inner ear and, by doing so, may prompt changes to one’s posture, balance, and coordination.
Indeed, sensory integration, including eye-ear integration, eye-head movement, and head-and-trunk movements and posture, is a key concept underlying the clinical work and experience at the Mind-Eye Institute. If eyes and ears are not integrated, for example, people have to continuously shift attention, and that effort becomes exhausting. Also, how a patient visually perceives sound location must match with where the patient perceives visual target locations to avoid a sensory mismatch. We also know that the muscles in the neck move reflexively when the eyes move.
As I have mentioned many times before, our team uses therapeutic lenses, filters, and other optometric interventions to stimulate the retina by changing the way light passes through it. Such retinal stimulation affects how the brain reacts to information about the environment. Modifying the way in which light strikes the retina oftentimes brings relief and helps patients suffering symptoms of brain injury, stroke, and other neurological diseases or struggling with learning disorders due to underdeveloped visual processing skills.
Still, what science continues working to understand is the impact of non-image forming data, such as electromagnetic waves, on the eyes, the ears, the brain, and the body. The International Agency for Research on Cancer even calls non-ionizing electromagnetic fields, such as those generated by mobile phones, tablets, and similar wireless devices, as potentially carcinogenic.
At this point you may be asking yourself what role optometry plays in all this discussion of electromagnetism? The answer is quite simple. As optometrists, we must look beyond what the patient’s eye simply “sees.” The standard 20/20 eye examinations as performed in the 19th and 20th centuries are fine for the general population, but no longer sufficient for properly evaluating a patient who has a brain injury, dysfunctional immune system, or a genetic disorder. We must begin using the 21st century optometric tools at our disposal to assess both central and peripheral eyesight; examine level of interplay among eyes, ears, neck muscles, and limbs and core muscles; evaluate visual processing capabilities; and consider the possible presence of other physical and neurological disorders as revealed through the retina.
Thanks to the rapid pace of new discoveries and knowledge of the links between the retina and the brain, optometrists could someday become the first-line health professionals for diagnosing a variety of diseases. Most scientists now agree that the retina serves as a “window” to the brain. Abnormalities in brain functions are often paralleled by abnormalities in the retina. In fact, an entire field called “oculomics” is emerging where biomarkers in the eye help identify problems in the body.
Deborah Zelinsky, O.D.
Founder, Executive Research Director, The Mind-Eye Institute (mindeye.com)
2023 President, Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics (worldbrainmapping.org)