Health – Cognitive abilities

Under the term cognitive abilities one understands in general the mental ability or performance, such as: 

  • Attentiveness
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Planning
  • Orientation

In humans, these cognitive abilities are based primarily on speech. Instinct, reflexes, emotions, feelings, intuition, creativity and habits are frequently differentiated from cognition.

The influence of electromagnetic fields

In order to investigate possible effects of EMFs on cognitive abilities studies on both animals and humans have been made. Specialised methods of testing were used such as reaction tests in the human experiments and labyrinth tests in the animal tests. Cognitive performance could be recorded with an electroencephalogram (Electroencephalogram (Electroenzephalogram (EEG))). The aim thereby is to find out whether, where and how EMFs influence cerebral activity and the functions connected to it.

In particular, the short term effect of high frequency EMFs from mobile telecommunications (handsets and base stations) have been investigated in recent years. Short term means a time period of minutes up to several hours. Long term studies are not yet available. The results until now are inconsistent. Some studies suggest that exposure to EMFs emanating from mobile communications can lead to an improvement of attentiveness and memory. Other studies, however, identified no effects or also an impairment of the cognitive powers. The diversity of the results cannot yet be scientifically explained. Undoubtedly different methodical approaches in the individual studies play a role.

Regarding ELF exposure, the majority of studies do not give evidence that magnetic fields impact human cognition.

It is important to stress here that the influences detected constitute no health risks. All the effects are comparatively subtle and lay within the natural fluctuations or the daily form. The German Commission on Radiological Protection stresses that no detrimental effects on health were present amongst any of the documented effects.


There are indications that a short term effect from EMFs emanating from mobile communications can influence the cognitive abilities. However, the results until today are not consistent, indeed they are sometimes contradictory. No effects on health have been identified. Regarding ELF magnetic fields, overall the available evidence points towards absence of effects on cognition.

Selected literature (overviews)

Literature List 2019 on RF Exposure and Cognition

BioInitiative Working Group (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. BioInitiative Report, www.bioinitiative.org. Section 9.

Barth, A., Ponocny, I., Gnambs, T., Winker, R. (2011). No effects of short-term exposure to mobile phone electromagnetic fields on human cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Bioelectromagnetics, first published online: 18 AUG 2011, DOI: 10.1002/bem.20697

Barth, A., Ponocny, I., Ponocny-Seliger, E., Vana, N., Winker, R. (2010). Effects of extremely low-frequency magnetic field exposure on cognitive functions: results of a meta-analysis. Bioelectromagnetics, 31, 3, 173-179.

Bundesamt für Umwelt (BAFU) (2007). Hochfrequente Strahlung und Gesundheit. Bewertung von wissenschaftlichen Studien im Niedrigdosisbereich. Bern: BAFU.

Di Lazzaro, V., F. Capone, F. Apollonio, P. A. Borea, R. Cadossi, L. Fassina, C. Grassi, M. Liberti, A. Paffi, M. Parazzini, K. Varani and P. Ravazzani (2013). A consensus panel review of central nervous system effects of the exposure to low-intensity extremely low-frequency magnetic fields. Brain Stimul, 6, 4, 469-476.

Dürrenberger, G., Leuchtmann, P., Röösli, M., Siegrist, M., Sütterlin, B. (2015). Fachliteratur-Monitoring "EMF von Strom-Technologien". BFE, Bern. Publication 291030, section

Gollnick, F., Dubois, W. (2007). Wirkung von EMF auf das menschliche Gehirn. Newsletter der Forschungsgemeinschaft Funk, 4, 1-13.

Independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.  U.K. Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire. Chapter 5.1.1, 205-207.

International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection ICNIRP (2009). Exposure to high frequency electromagnetic fields, bilogical effects and health consequences (100 kHz-300 GHz). Chapter II.5.1, 223-257.

Regel, S.J., Achermann, P. (2011). Cognitive performance measures in bioelectromagnetic research - critical evaluation and recommendations. Environ Health (online publication), 10 (10), doi:10.1186/1476-069X-10-10.

Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung (2011). Nichtionisierende Strahlung - Umwelt und Gesundheit. Programmsynthese. Nationales Forschungsprogramm NFP 57. Bern: SNF.

Van Rongen E, Croft R, Juutilainen J, Lagroye I, Miyakoshi J, Saunders R, de Seze R, Tenforde T, Verschaeve L, Veyret B, Xu Z (2009). Effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on the human nervous system. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B: Critical Reviews, 12, 8, 572-597.

Research Projects by FSM about Cognitive abilities

Ursachen unterschiedlicher individueller Reaktionen auf elektromagnetische Felder

Prof. Dr. Reto Huber, Prof. Dr. Peter Achermann
Kinderspital Zürich, Universitäts-Kinderklinik Eleonorenstiftung

Basic research (Closed)

Das Projekt versucht mit bildgebenden Verfahren (MRI) anatomische Merkmale im Gehirn aufdecken, die für individuelle Unterschiede in der Electroenzephalogram (EEG)-Antwort auf Exposition gegenüber pulsmodulierten Hochfrequenzfeldern zuständig sind.

Lustenberger, C., Murbach, M., Tüshaus, L., Wehrle, F., Kuster, N., Achermann, P., and Huber, R. (2015). Inter-individual and Intra-individual Variation of the Effects of Pulsed RFEMF Exposure on the Human Sleep Electroenzephalogram (EEG), Bioelectromagnetics 36, 3, 169-177. Download

Lustenberger, C., Murbach, M., Tüshaus, L., Wehrle, F., Kuster, N., Achermann, P., and Huber, R. (2015). Inter-individual and Intra-individual Variation of the Effects of Pulsed RFEMF Exposure on the Human Sleep Electroenzephalogram (EEG), Bioelectromagnetics 36, 3, 169-177. Download  Peer reviewed

Lustenberger, C., Wehrle, F., Tüshaus, L., Achermann, P., and Huber, R. (2015). The multidimensional aspects of sleep spindles and their relationship to word-pair memory consolidation. Sleep, 38, 7, 1093-103. Download

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Mobiltelefon: Schlaf und kognitive Leistungen

Prof. Dr. Reto Huber
Kinderspital Zürich, Universitäts-Kinderklinik Eleonorenstiftung

Basic research (Closed)

Das Projekt untersucht bei Jugendlichen Wirkmechanismen von gepulster EMF auf Aktivitäten der Hirnrinde während des Schlafs und wie sich solche Veränderungen auf die kognitive Leistungsfähigkeit auswirken.

Lustenberger, C., Maric, A., Dürr, R., Achermann, P., Huber, R. (2012). Triangular Relationship between Sleep Spindle Activity, General Cognitive Ability and the Efficiency of Declarative Learning. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49561. doi: 10.1371/Journal.pone.0049561. Download  Peer reviewed

Lustenberger C., Murbach M., Dürr R., Schmid M.R., Kuster N., Achermann P., Huber R. (2013). Stimulation of the brain with radiofrequency electromagnetic field pulses affects sleep-dependent performance improvement.Brain Stimulation xxx (2013) 1-7: in press  Peer reviewed

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Dosis-Wirkung Beziehung von GSM-Feldern (Typ Handy) auf Schlaf und Schlaf-EEG

PD Dr. Peter Achermann, Prof. Dr. Niels Kuster
Universität Zürich, Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie

Basic research (Closed)

Wir beobachteten, dass die Hirnaktivitäten im nicht-REM Schlaf nach Exposition mit gepulster Strahlung im Vergleich zur Exposition mit kontinuierlichen Wellen deutlich höher waren. Ziel dieses Projektes ist es, den Dosis-Wirkungs-Nachweis zu erbringen.

Regel, S.J., Tinguely, G., Schuderer, R., Adam, M., Kuster, N., Landolt, H-P., Achermann, P. (2007). Pulsed radio-frequency electromagnetic fields: dose-dependent effects on sleep, the sleep Electroenzephalogram (EEG) and cognitive performance. Journal of Sleep Research, 16, 253-258.  Peer reviewed

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Effekte niederfrequenter Signalkomponenten von Handystrahlung auf die Gehirnaktivität

Dr. Jon Dobson
Universitätsspital Zürich, Neurologische Klinik

Basic research (Closed)

Das Projekt untersucht die Auswirkungen von 2Hz und 8Hz Magnetfeldern auf die elektrische Aktivität des Gehirns von Epilepsie-Patienten, die eine prächirurgische Untersuchung erfahren, und von freiwilligen Versuchspersonen.

Verschueren, S., Wieser, H.G., Dobson, J., (2004) Preliminary analysis of the effects of DTX mobile phone emissions on the human Electroenzephalogram (EEG), in: Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields 2004, Kos, Greece (Ed. P. Kostarakis), 704-712.

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