Developmental effects of physiologically weak electric fields and heat: An overview

R D Saunders, C D McCaig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

20 Citations (Scopus)


This study summarizes the possible effects on prenatal development of physiologically weak electric fields induced in the body by exposure to extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields and of elevated temperature levels that might result from exposure to radiofrequency (RF) radiation. Both topics have been discussed at recent international workshops organized by WHO in collaboration with other bodies. Mammalian development is characterized by a highly ordered sequence of cell proliferation and differentiation, migration, and programmed cell death. These processes, particularly proliferation and migration, are susceptible to a variety of environmental agents including raised maternal temperature. In addition, there is growing evidence that physiologically weak endogenous DC electric fields and ionic currents have a role in guiding developmental processes, including cell orientation and migration, by establishing electrical potential gradients. Disruption of these fields can adversely affect development in amphibian and bird embryos, which are experimentally accessible, and may well do so in mammalian embryos. The extent to which induced ELF electric fields might influence these and other processes that take place during prenatal development, childhood, and adolescence is less clear. Organogenesis, which takes place primarily during the embryonic period, is susceptible to raised maternal temperatures; a large number of studies have shown that RF exposure produces developmental effects that can be attributed to heat. The development of the central nervous system is particularly susceptible to raised temperatures; a reduction in brain size, which results in a smaller head, is one of the most sensitive markers of heat-induced developmental abnormalities and can be correlated with heat-induced behavioral deficits. However, some aspects of CNS development have been less well explored, particularly effects on corticogenesis. In addition, the persistence of CNS developmental sensitivity through to childhood and adolescence is not clear.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2005


  • development
  • teratogen
  • review
  • electromagnetic fields
  • ELF
  • RF
  • EMF


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