The direct targets of extremely low and microwave frequency range electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in producing non-thermal effects have not been clearly established. However, studies in the literature, reviewed here, provide substantial support for such direct targets.
Twenty-three studies have shown that voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs) produce these and other EMF effects, such that the L-type or other VGCC blockers block or greatly lower diverse EMF effects. Furthermore, the voltage-gated properties of these channels may provide biophysically plausible mechanisms for EMF biological effects. Downstream responses of such EMF exposures may be mediated through Ca2+/calmodulin stimulation of nitric oxide synthesis. Potentially, physiological/therapeutic responses may be largely as a result of nitric oxide-cGMP-protein kinase G pathway stimulation.
A well-studied example of such an apparent therapeutic response, EMF stimulation of bone growth, appears to work along this pathway. However, pathophysiological responses to EMFs may be as a result of nitric oxide-peroxynitrite-oxidative stress pathway of action. A single such well-documented example, EMF induction of DNA single-strand breaks in cells, as measured by alkaline comet assays, is reviewed here. Such single-strand breaks are known to be produced through the action of this pathway.
Data on the mechanism of EMF induction of such breaks are limited; what data are available support this proposed mechanism. Other Ca2+-mediated regulatory changes, independent of nitric oxide, may also have roles.
This article reviews, then, a substantially supported set of targets, VGCCs, whose stimulation produces non-thermal EMF responses by humans/higher animals with downstream effects involving Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent nitric oxide increases, which may explain therapeutic and pathophysiological effects.
Discussion and conclusions
How do EMFs composed of low-energy photons produce non-thermal biological changes, both pathophysiological and, in some cases, potentially therapeutic, in humans and higher animals? It may be surprising that the answer to this question has been hiding in plain sight in the scientific literature. However, in this era of highly focused and highly specialized science, few of us have the time to read the relevant literature, let alone organize the information found within it in useful and critical ways.
This study shows that:
- Twenty-three different studies have found that such EMF exposures act via activation of VGCCs, such that VGCC channel blockers can prevent responses to such exposures (Table 1). Most of the studies implicate L-type VGCCs in these responses, but there are also other studies implicating three other classes of VGCCs.
- Both extremely low frequency fields, including 50/60 cycle exposures, and microwave EMF range exposures act via activation of VGCCs. So do static electric fields, static magnetic fields and nanosecond pulses.
- Voltage-gated calcium channel stimulation leads to increased intracellular Ca2+, which can act in turn to stimulate the two calcium/calmodulin-dependent nitric oxide synthases and increase nitric oxide. It is suggested here that nitric oxide may act in therapeutic/potentially therapeutic EMF responses via its main physiological pathway, stimulating cGMP and protein kinase G. It is also suggested that nitric oxide may act in pathophysiological responses to EMF exposure, by acting as a precursor of peroxynitrite, producing both oxidative stress and free radical breakdown products.
- The interpretation in three above is supported by two specific well-documented examples of EMF effects. Electromagnetic fields stimulation of bone growth, modulated through EMF stimulation of osteoblasts, appears to involve an elevation/nitric oxide/protein kinase G pathway. In contrast to that, it seems likely that the EMF induction of single-stranded DNA breaks involves a Ca2+/elevation/nitric oxide/peroxynitrite/free radical (oxidative stress) pathway.
It may be asked why we have evidence for involvement of VGCCs in response to EMF exposure, but no similar evidence for involvement of voltage-gated sodium channels? Perhaps, the reason is that there are many important biological effects produced in increased intracellular Ca2+, including but not limited to nitric oxide elevation, but much fewer are produced by elevated Na+.
The possible role of peroxynitrite as opposed to protein kinase G in producing pathophysiological responses to EMF exposure raises the question of whether there are practical approaches to avoiding such responses? Typically peroxynitrite levels can be highly elevated when both of its precursors, nitric oxide and superoxide, are high. Consequently, agents that lower nitric oxide synthase activity and agents that raise superoxide dismutases (SODs, the enzymes that degrade superoxide) such as phenolics and other Nrf2 activators that induce SOD activity , as well as calcium channel blockers may be useful. Having said that, this is a complex area, where other approaches should be considered, as well.
Although the various EMF exposures as well as static electrical field exposures can act to change the electrical voltage-gradient across the plasma membrane and may, therefore, be expected to stimulate VGCCs through their voltage-gated properties, it may be surprising that static magnetic fields also act to activate VGCCs because static magnetic fields do not induce electrical changes on static objects. However, cells are far from static. Such phenomena as cell ruffling , may be relevant, where thin cytoplasmic sheets bounded on both sides by plasma membrane move rapidly. Such rapid movement of the electrically conducting cytoplasm, may be expected to influence the electrical charge across the plasma membrane, thus potentially stimulating the VGCCs.
Earlier modelling of electrical effects across plasma membranes of EMF exposures suggested that such electrical effects were likely to be too small to explain EMF effects at levels reported to produce biological changes (see, for example ). However, more recent and presumably more biologically plausible modelling have suggested that such electrical effects may be much more substantial [104–109] and may, therefore, act to directly stimulate VGCCs.
Direct stimulation of VGCCs by partial depolarization across the plasma membrane is suggested by the following observations discussed in this review:
- The very rapid, almost instantaneous increase in intracellular Ca2+ found in some studies following EMF exposure [8, 16, 17, 19, 21, 27]. The rapidity here means that most, if not all indirect, regulatory effects can be ruled out.
- The fact that not just L-type, but three additional classes of VGCCs are implicated in generating biological responses to EMF exposure (Table 1), suggesting that their voltage-gated properties may be a key feature in their ability to respond to EMFs.
- Most, if not all, EMF effects are blocked by VGCC channel blockers (Table 1).
- Modelling of EMF effects on living cells suggests that plasma membrane voltage changes may have key roles in such effects [104–109]. Saunders and Jefferys stated  that ‘It is well established that electric fields … or exposure to low frequency magnetic fields, will, if of sufficient magnitude, excite nerve tissue through their interactions with … voltage gated ion channels’. They further state  that this is achieved by direct effects on the electric dipole voltage sensor within the ion channel.
One question that is not answered by any of the available data is whether what is known as ‘dirty electricity’ [111–113], generated by rapid, in many cases, square wave transients in EMF exposure, also acts by stimulating VGCCs. Such dirty electricity is inherent in any digital technology because digital technology is based on the use of such square wave transients and it may, therefore, be of special concern in this digital era, but there have been no tests of such dirty electricity that determine whether VGCCs have roles in response to such fields, to my knowledge. The nanosecond pulses, which are essentially very brief, but high-intensity dirty electricity do act, at least in part, via VGCC stimulation (Table 1), suggesting that dirty electricity may do likewise. Clearly, we need direct study of this question.
The only detailed alternative to the mechanism of non-thermal EMF effects discussed here, to my knowledge, is the hypothesis of Friedman et al.  and supported by Desai et al.  where the apparent initial response to EMF exposure was proposed to be NADH oxidase activation, leading to oxidative stress and downstream regulatory effects. Although they provide some correlative evidence for a possible role of NADH oxidase , the only causal evidence is based on a presumed specific inhibitor of NADH oxidase, diphenyleneiodonium (DPI). However, DPI has been shown to be a non-specific cation channel blocker , clearly showing a lack of such specificity and suggesting that it may act, in part, as a VGCC blocker. Consequently, a causal role for NADH oxidase in responses to EMF exposure must be considered to be undocumented.
In summary, the non-thermal actions of EMFs composed of low-energy photons have been a great puzzle, because such photons are insufficiently energetic to directly influence the chemistry of cells. The current review provides support for a pathway of the biological action of ultralow frequency and microwave EMFs, nanosecond pulses and static electrical or magnetic fields: EMF activation of VGCCs leads to rapid elevation of intracellular Ca2+, nitric oxide and in some cases at least, peroxynitrite. Potentially therapeutic effects may be mediated through the Ca2+/nitric oxide/cGMP/protein kinase G pathway. Pathophysiological effects may be mediated through the Ca2+/nitric oxide/peroxynitrite pathway. Other Ca2+-mediated effects may have roles as well, as suggested by Xu et al. .