Background: Hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields (EMF) is frequently claimed to be linked to a variety of non-specific somatic and neuropsychological complaints. Whereas provocation studies often failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between EMF exposure and symptom formation, recent studies point to a complex interplay of neurophysiological and cognitive alterations contributing to symptom manifestation in electromagnetic hypersensitive patients (EHS). However, these studies have examined only small sample sizes or have focused on selected aspects. Therefore this study examined in the largest sample of EHS EMF-specific cognitive correlates, discrimination ability and neurobiological parameters in order to get further insight into the pathophysiology of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Method: In a case-control design 89 EHS and 107 age- and gender-matched controls were included in the study. Health status and EMF-specific cognitions were evaluated using standardized questionnaires. Perception thresholds following single transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) pulses to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were determined using a standardized blinded measurement protocol. Cortical excitability parameters were measured by TMS.
Results: Discrimination ability was significantly reduced in EHS (only 40% of the EHS but 60% of the controls felt no sensation under sham stimulation during the complete series), whereas the perception thresholds for real magnetic pulses were comparable in both groups (median 21% versus 24% of maximum pulse intensity). Intra-cortical facilitation was decreased in younger and increased in older EHS. In addition, typical EMF-related cognitions (aspects of rumination, symptom intolerance, vulnerability and stabilizing self-esteem) specifically differentiated EHS from their controls.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate significant cognitive and neurobiological alterations pointing to a higher genuine individual vulnerability of electromagnetic hypersensitive patients.