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This article is devoted to examining the branch of psychology that is concerned with the behavior of living organisms after their exposure to ionizing radiations. The subject is a relatively new one in the field of psychology and is allied most closely to topics subsumed under the headings “physiological psychology” and “radiobiology.” At various times the subject has fallen under the headings “radiation psychology” and “radiopsychology” or, most often, under various forms of the heading “effects of radiation upon behavior.”

The field has been of practical interest to the medical sciences since the discovery of X rays in 1895, although behavioral scientists did not enter the field formally for another three decades. Since the inception of radiation research, the biomedical literature has reflected concern with behavioral data in terms of their application to diagnosis, abnormal growth patterns, heredity, and lethality. From the beginning, biomedical scientists found that behavioral effects of radiation provided substantive data to aid in the understanding of the structure and function of organ systems. Perhaps the most recent application of this field to applied sciences has taken place since the advent of the space age, when those concerned with the effects of unusual environmental conditions upon man have focused attention on the radiation hazards in space (Hanrahan & Bushnell 1960, pp. 155-188).

The influence of radiation no longer remains the exclusive interest of radiation scientists. Nuclear weapons have vastly widened the scope of attention, and the layman has long recognized that he lives in an age when radiation is a highly publicized fact of life. The employment of atomic energy for peaceful uses has led to the introduction of nuclear power plants into community life. It has now become relevant to acquaint the nonspecialist with the legal implications of radiation for labor and management. It is to the general interest of all to understand the relationship of radiation to all living matter so that appreciation may be developed for the opportunities and the complications now presented to us. Power plants will create more and cheaper energy sources; but power plants will create health hazards and contamination. New concepts of waste disposal will have to be developed, and these must be integrated with the thinking of city planners, oceanographers, sociologists, economists, and others who are concerned with the rapidly changing modern world. Those interested in population change will find the radiation scientists have much to say about processes of aging and heredity. It will be of interest to the geopolitically minded that radiation psychologists are investigating the social dynamics of groups who have been, or who may be, exposed to radiation. To those involved in influencing public opinion, the implications of this field are self-evident in a world of ideological conflict.

The problems of studying the effects of radiation are numerous and complex (see Bibliography). The extent of this complexity is well described by Van Cleave (1963, p. 356), who stresses that most new discoveries “lead to new horizons of the unknown.”

Major variables to be studied. The psychologist interested in radiation is concerned with relating his behavioral data to their underlying physiological processes. This requires that the following variables must be assessed from both the psychological and biological point of view, under comparable environmental conditions:

The stimuli. There are two classes of ionizing radiations, material and electromagnetic. The former include neutrons, alpha and beta particles, deu-terons, and protons; the latter include X rays and gamma rays. All, by definition, are capable of changing cell structure by dislodgement of electrons from atoms. (The references provide extensive descriptions of the characteristics of these stimuli.) The psychologist studying radiation must concern himself with them individually and in combinations. Thus, he is faced with examining the effects of many energy levels, e.g., from 70 kilovolts to several million electron volts for X rays and gamma rays, from 1,000,000 to 14,000,000 electron volts for fast neutrons, and so on, for each of these radiations.

Method of exposure. Radiation is known to affect the target differentially, depending on how it is delivered. For example (Bond et al. 1965), doses of a few hundred rads to the whole body will cause death within days, while doses of several thousands of rads are delivered to focal points of the body in radiation therapy without lethal effect. The effects of exposure, therefore, need to be considered in terms of whether the dose is delivered to the whole body or to a part of it. Both types of exposure must be related to frequency and duration of exposure and to rates of delivery of the dose over various distances from source to target. Any shielding conditions in the exposure environment must likewise be examined.

Behavior to be studied. All behavior is the object of the radiation psychologist’s investigations. The affective, cognitive, sensory, and motor aspects of an individual organism’s behavior, as well as social interaction of the radiated individuals, are considered.

Subjects to be employed. All living species are potential objects of investigation. Special consideration must be given to such factors as age at time of exposure, age at time of behavioral study, sex, and inherited and acquired characteristics related to the behavior to be studied. Certain animals become subjects of choice because of their known biological characteristics, the presence of which may aid in the clarification of a specific question related to a radiation effect.

Instrumentation and procedures. The equipment and methods employed may be those standardized by experimental psychology, or they may be especially devised to test for unique aspects of behavior elicited by radiation. Experimenters have frequently used normal control subjects for comparison with experimental populations, but they have just as often used radiated subjects as their own controls for preradiation and postradiation capabilities.

Nature of studies undertaken. An examination of the experimental findings in the behavioral field reveals attempts in many parts of the world to explore the aforementioned variables. The many recent and comprehensive reviews of the subject permit the reader to follow the work to a degree impossible to duplicate in this brief report (Stahl 1959; I960; Lebedinskii et al. 1958; Russell 1954; Rugh 1962; 1963; Furchtgott 1956; 1963; 1964; Van Cleave 1963; International Symposium …1964; WHO 1957; Northwestern Univ. 1962; Lebedinskii & Nakhil’nitskaia 1963; Bond et al. 1965; Kimeldorf & Hunt 1965). All of these sources call attention to the relevant allied science reviews and provide extensive bibliographies.

Kaplan (1962, pp. 153-160) has provided an additional review, in which he calls attention to the techniques and procedures employed in the field. Although this paper is limited to an analysis of the rat maze experimentation, it conveys im-plications about the problems associated with techniques involving all species, with all behavioral subject matter. The summaries of all the referenced compilations yield the following types of information:

(1) A wide assortment of living organisms have been employed as subjects. Men, subhuman primates, dogs, cats, rodents, fowl, fish, and many invertebrate forms have variously been exposed to X, gamma, alpha, beta, and neutron radiation, as well as to mixtures of these. Dose levels have been given from fractions of a roentgen (r) to over 100,000 r. Rates of radiation delivery to both the whole body and to focal points of the body vary from experiment to experiment. Some studies have been devoted to single and others to additive radiation exposures. Studies have utilized both lethal and sublethal doses.

(2) Learning, general activity, emotionality, mating behavior, classical and instrumental conditioning, and visual, auditory, vestibular, cutaneous, olfactory, and kinesthetic functions have been explored. The employment of mazes, classical and operant conditioning devices, primate general test apparatus, and open field boxes are among the many testing instruments employed.

(3) Differences in procedures and apparatus and failure of behavioral scientists to standardize methods and equipment have led to slow advancement and difficulty in generalizing from available findings.

Effects of radiation on behavior. While a vast amount of knowledge has been accumulated by all the disciplines concerned with radiation, there remain unresolved problems. Nonetheless, even with controversial and contradictory evidence casting some doubt, it is relatively safe to state that some points have been established:

Developing organisms. The following data seem to be indicative of some of the radiation effects on developing organisms.

(1) Deficiencies in maze learning occur in rats irradiated on any gestation day and during the neonatal period. These deficiencies can be elicited by a dose as low as 25 r. The extent of the deficit is a function of the time and amount of radiation given and the age at time of testing, the type of maze employed, and the sex of the animal. In general, maze-learning deficiency is more apparent for sublethal doses (100-200 r) delivered in utero around the fourteenth day. Testing of animals for acquisition of maze-learning skill when they are around one year of age reveals greater deficit than appears in rats tested at an earlier age. The female is more adversely affected than the male; a Lashley III type maze, which has been shown to be especially sensitive for studying brain damage (Lashley 1929), is the instrument used to obtain the findings.

(2) Alterations in activity and locomotion result from prenatal and neonatal exposure with doses as low as 25 r. Radiation in utero seems to enhance these behaviors, while neonatal exposure inhibits them.

(3) Prenatally irradiated subjects exhibit greater “fearfulness,” a measure of emotionality, than do normals. A 50 r dose seems to be sufficient to elicit this behavior.

(4) Although there are reports of a few cases of personality aberrations and mental deficiencies in Japanese irradiated in utero, as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is insufficient data available to draw conclusions regarding this population (Miller 1956).

Adult organisms. For adult organisms some of the effects of radiation are:

(1) It has been generally accepted that immediately following doses in sublethal and even lethal ranges, higher-order learning processes and their retention are not impaired (Northwestern Univ. 1962; Furchtgott 1963). For example, Kaplan and his associates (see Pickering, Langham, and Ram-bach 1956) have shown that after exposure to massive doses of gamma radiation, monkeys were able to learn to discriminate between stimuli to which they had never before been exposed. These same animals manifested memory for discriminations they had learned to make before they were irradiated. Exceptions have been reported (Sharp & Keller 1965) which indicate that monkeys exposed to doses which cause death within hours will show impairment of preradiation-learned performances which involve memory of time perception. If the irradiated subject survives beyond a thirty-day period the dose is then not viewed as lethal. For animals receiving nonlethal doses, there is evidence after months and years of changes in performance which are attributable to radiation exposure (Davis 1965). Among the changes noted are alterations in motivation, extent of distracti-bility, and narrowing of attention, all factors related to higher-order learning and retention.

(2) Drive is adversely affected by radiation exposure, in direct association with the reduction of food and water intake and the decrement in general activity.

(3) Radiation has been shown to be effective as an unconditioned stimulus. Conditioned avoidance responses can be elicited with as little as lOr, providing a means for testing conditioned responses to sound, light, taste, and object quality.

(4) Sublethal doses up to l,100r have resulted in increases in self-involved, and a diminution in socially oriented, behavior of survivors. This finding was consistent during a period of seven years of observation of subjects.

(5) Low doses of X rays have been shown to be visible. Also, it appears that visual functions are depressed by radiation.

(6) Cutaneous, gustatory, olfactory, and intero-ceptive mechanisms are found to have reversible and unstable alterations of response to radiation. Auditory responses, also, reflect these characteristics, with conflicting reports of both increases and decreases of threshold.

(7) Very low doses have been shown by some Russians to alter conditioned reflex behavior (Stahl 1959; I960; Lebedinskii et al. 1958).

Neurophysiological aspects. Since radiation psychology falls quite logically under the broader fields of physiological psychology and radiobiology, attention should be directed to interrelationships between neurophysiological processes affected by radiation and related behavioral adjustments. The body of biological data is extensive and may be studied in the previously mentioned source books. Some of the most relevant findings can be seen to relate closely to behavioral results:

(1) The relative radiosensitivity and resistance of various cells and tissues have been identified, with strong evidence that the greatest sensitivity is in the lymphocytes and granulocytes and the least sensitivity is in the muscle, bone, and nerve cells.

(2) Radiation impairs the ability of the cells to maintain metabolic equilibrium and ultimately provides evidence for cell deviancy both morphologically and functionally.

(3) For developing organisms, the anatomical changes are maximal if radiation occurs during the period of major organogenesis. There is also considerable morphological data to support the conclusion that radiation delivered at any time to a developing organism has a deleterious effect upon neurophysiological function.

(4) It is particularly relevant to mention the many neurological signs observed in organisms after neonatal radiation: tremor, leg dragging, head deviations, uncoordinated gait, elevated pelvic posture, and chronically abducted limbs.

(5) Adult neural tissue has for the most part been established as being markedly radioresistant, with doses in the l,000r level failing to create impairment. Nonetheless, a growing body of data from European and Russian laboratories gives functional evidence of neural impairment after minute doses.

(6) Innumerable references are available that reflect radiation effects upon the interaction of the nervous system with endocrine, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal functions. All of these factors are strongly related to the behavioral findings noted.

It is too early in the development of the field of radiation to predict the direction it will take. However, evidence does indicate that radiation can be a useful tool in the study of embryonic development (Hicks 1958). Suggestions are being made for the exploration of the use of radiation as a diagnostic tool in clinical psychology and psychiatry, through employment of radioisotopes in chemotherapy and physical therapy. Its usage in studying electronically developed brain models points to a new behavioral domain of investigation allied to computer technology. The need for exploring the sociological implications of a radiated society demands development of behavioral science techniques for identifying radiation factors that interact with other group attributes.

Perhaps the most important need in the field today is to standardize procedures when findings appear to be consistent. The reduction of controversial data to a minimum will permit generalization within psychology and between the other disciplines in this field. The fact that so many disciplines are linked to the radiation field demands this type of liaison and interdisciplinary cooperation if the massive task of integrating the knowledge of radiation already obtained in the atomic era is to be accomplished.

Sylvan J. Kaplan

[Other relevant material may be found inNervous System; Nuclear War; Space, Outer.]


Bond, Victor P.; Fliedner, Theodore M.; and Archam-beau, J. O. 1965 Mammalian Radiation Lethality: A Disturbance in Cellular Kinetics. New York: Academic Press.

Davis, Roger T. 1965 The Radiation Syndrome. Volume 2, pages 495–524 in Allan M. Schrier, Harry F. Harlow, and Fred Stollnitz (editors), Behavior of Non-human Primates: Modern Research Trends. New York: Academic Press.

Ellinger, Friedrich P. (1935) 1947 The Biological Fundamentals of Radiation Therapy. London: Cleaver-Hume. → First published in German.

Furchtgott, Ernest 1956 Behavioral Effects of Ionizing Radiation. Psychological Bulletin 53:321-334.

Furchtgott, Ernest 1963 Behavioral Effects of Ionizing Radiations: 1955-1961. Psychological Bulletin 60: 157-199.

Furchtgott, Ernest 1964 Postscript to “Behavioral Effects of Ionizing Radiations: 1955-1961.” Psychological Bulletin 61:236-238.

Glasser, Otto et al. (1944)1961 Physical Foundations of Radiology. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Hoeber.

Gray, L. H. 1949 Comparative Studies of the Biological Effects of X-rays, Neutrons, and Other Ionizing Radiations. Pages 114–137 in N. Howard-Jones (editor), Applied Biopfit/sics; Survey of Physical Methods Used in Medicine: A Symposium. New York: Chemical Publishing Company.

Hanrahan, James S.; and Bushnell, David 1960 Space Biology: The Human Factors in Space Flight. New York: Basic Books.

Hicks, S. P. 1958 Radiation as an Experimental Tool in Mammalian Developmental Neurology. Physiological Reviews 38:337-356.

Hollaender, Alexander (editor) 1954–1956 Radiation Biology. 3 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill. → Volume 1: High Energy Radiation. Volume 2: Ultraviolet and Related Radiations. Volume 3: Visible and Near-visible Light.

International Symposium On The Response Of The Nervous System To Ionizing Radiation, Second, Los Angeles, 7963 1964 Response of the Nervous System to Ionizing Radiation. Edited by Thomas J. Haley and Ray S. Snider. Boston: Little.

Kaplan, Sylvan J. 1962 Radiation Research in Psychology: An Analysis of Techniques in Maze Experimentation. Psychological Bulletin 99:153-160.

Kimeldorf, Donald J.; and Hunt, Edward L. 1965 Ionizing Radiation: Neural Function and Behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Lapp, Ralph E.; and Andrews, Howard L. (1948) 1963 Nuclear Radiation Physics. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lashley, Karl S. 1929 Bram Mechanisms and Intelligence: A Quantitative Study of Injuries to the Brain. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Lea, Douglas E. (1947)1955 Actions of Radiations on Living Cells. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Lebedinskii, Andrei V.; and Nakhil’nitskaia, Z. N. 1963 Effects of Ionizing Radiation on the Nervous System. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier.

Lebedinskii, Andrei V. et al. 1958 On the Biological Effect of Small Doses of Ionizing Radiation. Pages 17–28 in International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, Second, Geneva, Proceedings. Volume 22: Biological Effects of Radiation. Geneva: United Nations.

Miller, R. W. 1956 Delayed Effects Occurring Within the First Decade After Exposure of Young Individuals to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb. Pediatrics 18:1-18.

Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois; and Medical School, Chicago 1962 Response of the Nervous System to Ionizing Radiation: Proceedings of an International Symposium. New York: Academic Press.

Pickering, John E.; Langham, Wright H.; and Rambach, Walter A. 1956 The Effects From Massive Doses of High Dose Rate Gamma Radiation on Monkeys. USAF, Aerospace Medical Center (ATC), Report No. 60-57. Brooks Air Force Base, Texas: School of Aviation Medicine.

Rugh, R. 1962 Ionizing Radiations and Congenital Anomalies of the Nervous System. Military Medicine 127:883-907.

Rugh, R. 1963 The Impact of Ionizing Radiations on the Embryo and Fetus. American Journal of Roentgenology. Radium Therapy and Nuclear Medicine 89:182-190.

Russell, Liane B. 1954 The Effects of Radiation on Mammalian Prenatal Development. Volume 1, pages 861–918 in Alexander Hollaender (editor), Radiation Biology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sharp, Joseph C; and Keller, Barbara K. 1965 A Comparison Between the Effects of Exposure to a Mixed Fission Spectrum Delivered in a Single “Pulse” and X-rays Delivered at a Slower Rate Upon the Conditioned Avoidance Behavior of Primates. Technical Report No. 4. Washington: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Division of Neuropsychiatry.

Stahl, Walter R. 1959 A Review of Soviet Research on the Central Nervous System Effects of Ionizing Radiations. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 129: 511-529.

Stahl, Walter R. 1960 Recent Soviet Work on Reactions of the Central Nervous System to Ionizing Radiation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 131: 213-233.

Van Cleave, Charles D. 1963 Irradiation and the Nervous System. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

World Health Organization 1957 The Effect of Radiation on Human Heredity. Geneva: The Organization.

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Radiation takes many forms, including both electromagnetic waves and sub-nuclear particles. The electromagnetic spectrum consists of light waves ranging in length from very short (1016 meters, or 3.937 × 1015 inches) to very long (108 meters, or 621,400 miles). The product of the velocity of electromagnetic waves and their wavelength is a constant equal to the velocity of light, 3 × 108 meters per second (m/s); therefore, as the length of waves increases, the frequency decreases. Thus, if the waves were 1 meter(3.3 feet) long, the frequency would be 3 × 108 hertz (Hz) or 300,000,000/s (meaning 300,000,000 light waves would pass by each second). The electromagnetic spectrum consists of light waves ranging in length from very short γ (gamma) rays through x rays, ultraviolet (UV) rays, the spectrum of visible light, infrared (IR) rays, and microwaves, to very long radio and television waves.

Forms of Radiation

The shortest electromagnetic waves are classified as γ rays. One of the forms of energy emanating from natural sources of radioactivity here on Earth and also from energy sources in space, γ rays can be thought of as very short x rays. Discovered by the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1895, the remarkable penetrating effect of rays and x rays results from their very short wavelength (from about 1012 to 108 meters, or 3.28 × 1011 to 3.28 × 107 feet). The waves are so small that they can pass through many substances with little interaction. X rays pass through skin and organs with little effect but are diffracted somewhat when they pass through denser materials such as bone; the resulting pattern enables technicians to make xray images of bones and of the contents of packages in airport scanners.

The energy of electromagnetic radiation is directly proportional to the frequency. Since both x rays and γ rays have very high frequencies, they carry large amounts of energy, and high intensities of x rays and γ rays can damage many materials (including living tissue). The rays may be focused by special lenses and used to kill cancer cells or organisms that might cause disease or hasten spoilage in food.

Bonds between atoms in chemical compounds vibrate at characteristic frequencies. Some molecules possess bonds capable of absorbing electromagnetic

energy, causing the bonds to bend, stretch, or vibrate and sometimes break. Certain bonds in particular (e.g., that between carbon and oxygen atoms) capture energy at specific frequencies of IR radiation, allowing technicians to use instruments called spectrophotometers to detect the presence of these bonds in chemical compounds. UV, visible, and IR spectroscopy are tools that permit chemists to readily identify and characterize small amounts of chemical substances.

Most animals, including humans, have visual receptors that detect light in the visible spectrum ranging from 400 nanometers (15.75 × 106 for blue light to 700(27.56 × 106 inches) for red light. (A nanometer equals 109 meters.) Just below the visible spectrum lies UV light, ranging in wavelength from about 10 to 400 nanometers (3.937 × 107 to 157.5 × 107 inches). UV light is more energetic than visible light; UV radiation in the sunlight can damage molecules in the skin and is the cause of sunburn. Green plants carry out photosynthesis by using chlorophyll molecules that readily capture light energy in the visible spectrum.

Microwave radiation consists of electromagnetic waves somewhat longer than infrared waves (from about 103 meters, or 0.3937 inches, to 1 meter, or 39.37 inches, long) and having a lower frequency, ranging from about 1,000 to 300,000 megahertz (MHz). Waves in this range are readily absorbed by bonds in water molecules. Microwave ovens take advantage of the fact that foods usually contain large amounts of water, and dishes do not. The waves of IR or microwave radiation are usually too long to pass through the small holes in the doors of microwave ovens; thus, one can use a microwave oven to heat food without heating the dish or being harmed by the radiation. Magnetron tubes generate radiation that can be used for radar or for the microwave transmission of electronic signals.

An immense amount of radiation passes undetected through the environment. Our surroundings contain large amounts of radio waves, generally from one to thousands of meters long. X rays and rays also pass through us and the space around us with little effect. From time to time, fears have been raised concerning the electromagnetic radiation emanating from power lines, cathode ray terminals such as television sets and computer monitors, and the earphones of personal transistor radios or CD players, but there is little actual evidence of injury or illness from low intensity radiation. However, workers have been injured or killed by high intensity microwave radiation, and technicians working with radioactive materials must take special precautions.

Much radiation arrives on Earth from the Sun, and some of the energy of this radiation exists in the form of UV light. UV light waves can damage skin and would be much more hazardous were it not for the layer of ozone that exists in Earth's upper atmosphere. In a process known as the Chapman cycle, UV radiation splits oxygen molecules (O2) in the stratosphere to form free oxygen atoms (O). Some of these atoms combine with oxygen molecules to form ozone molecules (O3). The O3 molecules are especially sensitive to UV radiation; the absorption of UV photons converts the ozone back into oxygen atoms and oxygen molecules:

O2 2 O
O + O2 O3
O3 O2 + O          (1)

In recent years the amount of O3 in the stratosphere over the South Pole has decreased periodically, resulting in an ozone "hole" in the atmosphere. The decrease is most pronounced during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere. If the amount of ozone continues to decrease, more UV light will reach the surface of Earth, probably causing some skin damage and increasing the incidence of cancer. Chlorine atoms react with and destroy ozone:

C1 + O3 C1O + O2          (2)

Increasing atmospheric amounts of chlorine atoms or free radicals probably result in the destruction of ozone; the source of the chlorine atoms is thought to be synthetic substances known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . Some CFCs may be released from air-conditioning equipment or aerosol spray cans, and some may result from the production of plastic foams. Several international agreements, including the Montréal Protocol of 1987 and the Copenhagen amendment of 1992, have been established to limit the production of CFCs.


Although many forms of electromagnetic radiation exist, special consideration is often given to radiation from unstable (radioactive) atomic nuclei. This radiation is usually one of three types, α - and β -particles or γ rays, but some nuclear reactions may also result in the emission of neutrons.α -particles are relatively large and highly charged particles identical with the nuclei of helium atoms. Each has a mass of four atomic mass units (AMU) and a charge of +2. Radioactive ores containing sources of α -particles often produce helium gas as a result of the capture of electrons by the

α -particles. β -particles are high-speed electrons, having a mass of about 1/1,800 amu and a charge of 1. γ rays are similar to x rays.

X rays, γ rays, and neutron beams are considered ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation may break molecules into pieces, creating ionic free radicals that can be very damaging to tissue. Contaminated food or dust containing radionuclides that emit α - and β -particles may be very dangerous if the sources of radiation are ingested. Strontium-90 (90Sr) present in fallout from nuclear weapons testing may be absorbed from soil, incorporated in plant tissues, eaten by cows, and eventually find its way into milk. Strontium is chemically similar to calcium. The 90Sr may then be absorbed from the digestive tract and deposited in bone, where α -particles released by radionuclide decay damage the blood-producing reactions in bone marrow.

Several methods are used to detect radiation; the earliest of these, also discovered by Röntgen, is exposure of photographic film. Since x rays can pass through solid materials, they expose photographic film sealed in lightproof envelopes. Workers in industrial settings today often wear film badges that contain a sheet of photographic film inside a plastic container fitted with aluminum and lead shields. In order to determine the amount and type of radiation exposure, the badges are collected periodically and the film developed. Darkening of the film indicates exposure. Workers may also wear dosimeters, pencil-like tubes that are examined daily for exposure. For large-scale operations or as survey monitors at factory gates, Geiger-Mueller counters are utilized. These devices detect radiation by using a tube consisting of a metal can containing a charged wire. The tube is sealed with a thin plastic or mica window. Radiation penetrating the can or window ionizes molecules of gas inside the tube, and the ions allow an electrical discharge, which can be detected and registered by an electrical circuit. Civil defense and military personnel often carry Geiger counters to survey large areas for contamination by radioactivity.

Uses of Radiation

Radiation is a versatile tool for the diagnosis and treatment of disease, as well as a means of industrial testing and treating foods to avoid spoilage. Many common metabolic substances can be labeled by replacing atoms such as carbon or hydrogen with radioactive atoms such as 14C or 3H. The resulting molecules are absorbed by the body and react in the same way as nonradioactive molecules, but the decay of the radioisotope releases tiny amounts of radioactivity that can be detected with sensitive instruments. Some compounds are absorbed more rapidly by diseased tissue (a cancerous organ, for example, might rapidly absorb glucose from blood), and the use of substances such as radioactive iodine can help diagnose tumors of the thyroid gland without invasive surgery. Some diseases such as cancer can be treated by administering a preparation containing radionuclides within molecules that are taken up by an organ and release their radioactivity within the diseased tissue.

Cells that are growing and dividing rapidly are the most sensitive to radiation. In the human body, these include gonadal tissue, hair follicles, the immune system, bone marrow, intestinal epithelium , and cancer cells. Cancer may be treated by external beam radiation, using γ -type radiation to deliver energy to abnormal cells, in the hope of killing them. Normal tissues are protected by lead shielding, and also by rotating the radiation source, passing the beam of rays through a larger range of tissue, and avoiding the intense irradiation of nontumorous tissues. In some cases, malignant cells can be treated with brachytherapy, the implantation of tiny metallic seeds containing radioisotopes that emit small amounts of radiation, killing the cancer from the inside. Radioisotopes decay at a known rate; often a nuclide that decays rapidly may be chosen, allowing the patient to be radiation-free upon discharge.

Gamma radiation is widely used in manufacturing to make images of welds in pipes. A recent application of radiation in the food industry involves the use of radiation (usually either γ rays or high-energy beams of electrons) to irradiate food, killing organisms that cause spoilage. The irradiation of food presents several advantages: foodstuffs may last weeks longer with little refrigeration; the use of dangerous chemical preservatives can be avoided; and foods may be prepared, wrapped, and preserved with less contact by human workers, lessening the chances of spreading disease-producing organisms. In recent years, especially virulent and damaging strains of Escherichia coli have caused outbreaks of illness among persons who consumed contaminated hamburger, and some cases of salmonella poisoning have been associated with the consumption of poultry products. Food irradiation may help to make such foods much safer.

Our environment contains many sources of radiation, such as cosmic rays that constantly bombard Earth. The atmosphere filters out some cosmic rays, so exposure is greater at higher altitudes than at sea level. Radiation sources also include smoke detectors, luminous watch dials, television and computer monitors, and medical x rays. We are exposed daily to electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves as well as α - and β -particles and γ rays emanating from radioactive carbon, hydrogen, and potassium, which are part of all living things. A small amount of radiation is probably harmless and may, in fact, be helpful. Radon in our homes is a potential cause of cancer. Although radon is a colorless, odorless gas, it decays to more chemically reactive and radioactive products that may bind in lung tissue. Like many dangerous gases, radon is much more hazardous in the presence of particulate matter such as the tiny particles present in cigarette smoke.

see also Photosynthesis; Radioactivity; RÖntgen, Wilhelm.

Dan M. Sullivan


Christie, Maureen (2001). Ozone Layer. A Philosophy of Science Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dessler, Andrew (2000). The Chemistry and Physics of Stratospheric Ozone. San Diego: Academic Press.

Miller, E. Willard, and Miller, Ruby M. (1990). Environmental Hazards: Radioactive Materials and Wastes: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Molins, R. A., ed. (2001). Food Irradiation: Principles and Application. New York: Wiley.

Stanitski, Conrad L.; Eubanks, Lucy P.; Middlecamp, Catherine H.; and Pienta, Norman J. (2003). Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry to Society, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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Radiation and radioisotopes are extensively used medications to allow physicians to image internal structures and processes in vivo (in the living body) with a minimum of invasion to the patient. Higher doses of radiation are also used as means to kill cancerous cells.

Radiation is actually a term that includes a variety of different physical phenomena. However, in essence, all these phenomena can be divided into two classes: phenomena connected with nuclear radioactive processes are one class, the so-called radioactive radiation (RR); electromagnetic radiation (EMR) may be considered as the second class.

Both classes of radiation are used in diagnoses and treatment of neurological disorders.


There are three kinds of radiation useful to medical personnel: alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Alpha radiation is a flow of alpha particles, beta radiation is a flow of electrons, and gamma radiation is electromagnetic radiation.

Radioisotopes, containing unstable combinations of protons and neutrons, are created by neutron activation. This involves the capture of a neutron by the nucleus of an atom, resulting in an excess of neutrons (neutron rich). Proton-rich radioisotopes are manufactured in cyclotrons. During radioactive decay, the nucleus of a radioisotope seeks energetic stability by emitting particles (alpha, beta, or positron) and photons (including gamma rays).

Radiationproduced by radioisotopesallows accurate imaging of internal organs and structures. Radioactive tracers are formed from the bonding of short-lived radioisotopes with chemical compounds that, when in the body, allow the targeting of specific body regions or physiologic processes. Emitted gamma rays (photons) can be detected by gamma cameras and computer enhancement of the resulting images and allows quick and relatively noninvasive (compared to surgery) assessments of trauma or physiological impairments.

Because the density of tissues is unequal, x rays (a high frequency and energetic form of electromagnetic radiation) pass through tissues in an unequal manner. The beam passed through the body layer is recorded on special film to produce an image of internal structures. However, conventional x rays produce only a two-dimensional picture of the body structure under investigation.

Tomography (from the Greek tomos, meaning "to slice") is a method developed to allow the detailed construction of images of the target object. Initially using the x rays to scan layers of the area in question, with computer assisted tomography a computer then analyzes data of all layers to construct a 3D image of the object.

Computed tomography (also known as CT, CT scan ) and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans use x rays to produce images of anatomical structures.

Single proton (or photon) emission computed tomography (SPECT) produces three-dimensional images of an organ or body system. SPECT detects the presence and course of a radioactive substance that is injected, ingested, or inhaled. In neurology, a SPECT scan can allow physicians to examine and observe the cerebral circulation . SPECT produces images of the target region by detecting the presence and location of a radioactive isotope. The photon emissions of the radioactive compound containing the isotope can be detected in a manner that is similar to the detection of x rays in computed tomography (CT). At the end of the SPECT scan, the stored information can be integrated to produce a computer-generated composite image.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans utilize isotopes produced in a cyclotron. Positron-emitting radionuclides are injected and allowed to accumulate in the target tissue or organ. As the radionuclide decays, it emits a positron that collides with nearby electrons to result in the emission of two identifiable gamma photons. PET scans use rings of detectors that surround the patient to track the movements and concentrations of radioactive tracers. PET scans have attracted the interest of physicians because of their potential use in research into metabolic changes associated with mental diseases such as schizophrenia and depression . PET scans are used in the diagnosis and characterizations of certain cancers and heart disease, as well as clinical studies of the brain. PET uses radio-labeled tracers, including deoxyglucose, which is chemically similar to glucose and is used to assess metabolic rate in tissues and to image tumors, and dopa, within the brain.

Electromagnetic radiation

In contrast to imaging produced through the emission and collection of nuclear radiation (e.g., x rays, CT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners rely on the emission and detection of electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation results from oscillations of components of electric and magnetic fields. In the simplest cases, these oscillations occur with definite frequency (the unit of frequency measurement is 1 Hertz (Hz), which is one oscillation per second). Arising in some point (under the action of the radiation source), electromagnetic radiation travels with the velocity that is equal to the velocity of the light, and this velocity is equal for all frequencies. Another quantity, wavelength, is often used for the description of electromagnetic radiation (this quantity is similar to the distance between two neighbor crests of waves spreading on a water surface, which appear after dropping a stone on the surface). Because the product of the wavelength and frequency must equal the velocity of light, the greater the wave frequency, the less its wavelength.

MRI scanners rely on the principles of atomic nuclear-spin resonance. Using strong magnetic fields and radio waves, MRIs collect and correlate deflections caused by atoms into images. MRIs allow physicians to see internal structures with great detail and also allow earlier and more accurate diagnosis of disorders.

MRI technology was developed from nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology. Groups of nuclei brought into resonance, that is, nuclei absorbing and emitting photons of similar electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, make subtle yet distinguishable changes when the resonance is forced to change by altering the energy of impacting photons. The speed and extent of the resonance changes permit a non-destructive (because of the use of low-energy photons) determination of anatomical structures.

MRI images do not utilize potentially harmful ionizing radiation generated by three-dimensional x-ray CT scans, but rely on the atomic properties (nuclear resonance) of protons in tissues when they are scanned with radio frequency radiation. The protons in the tissues, which resonate at slightly different frequencies, produce a signal that a computer uses to tell one tissue from another. MRI provides detailed three-dimensional soft tissue images.

These methods are used successfully for brain investigations.

Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)

Radiotherapy requires the use of radioisotopes and higher doses of radiation that are used diagnostically to treat some cancers (including brain cancer) and other medical conditions that require destruction of harmful cells.

Radiation therapy is delivered via external radiation or via internal radiation therapy (the implantation/injection of radioactive substances).

Cancer, tumors, and other rapidly dividing cells are usually sensitive to damage by radiation. The goal of radiation therapy is to deliver the minimally sufficient dosage to kill cancerous cells or to keep them from dividing. Cancer cells divide and grow at rates more rapid than normal cells and so are particularly susceptible to radiation. Accordingly, some cancerous growths can be restricted or eliminated by radioisotope irradiation. The most common forms of external radiation therapy use gamma and x rays. During the last half of the twentieth century, the radioisotope cobalt-60 was the frequently used source of radiation used in such treatments. More modern methods of irradiation include the production of x rays from linear accelerators.

Iodine-131, phosphorus-32 are commonly used in radiotherapy. More radical uses of radioisotopes include the use of boron-10 to specifically attack tumor cells. Boron-10 concentrates in tumor cells and is then subjected to neutron beams that result in highly energetic alpha particles that are lethal to the tumor tissue.


Radiation therapy is not without risk to healthy tissue and to persons on the health care team, and precautions (shielding and limiting exposure) are taken to minimize exposure to other areas of the patient's body and to personnel on the treatment team.

Therapeutic radiologists, radiation oncologists, and a number of technical specialists use radiation and other methods to treat patients who have cancer or other tumors.

Care is taken in the selection of the appropriate radioactive isotope. Ideally, the radioactive compound loses its radioactive potency rapidly (this is expressed as the half-life of a compound). For example, gamma-emitting compounds used in SPECT scans can have a half-life of just a few hours. This is beneficial for the patients, as it limits the contact time with the potentially damaging radioisotope.

The selection of radioisotopes for medical use is governed by several important considerations involving dosage and half-life. Radioisotopes must be administered in sufficient dosages so that emitted radiation is present in sufficient quantity to be measured. Ideally the radioisotope has a short enough half-life that, at the delivered dosage, there is insignificant residual radiation following the desired length of exposure.

New areas of radiation therapy that may prove more effective in treating brain tumors (and other forms of cancers) include three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (a process where multiple beans are shaped to match the contour of the tumor) and stereotactic radiosurgery (used to irradiate certain brain tumors and obstructions of the cerebral circulation). Gamma knives use focused beams (with the patient often wearing a special helmet to help focus the beams), while cyberknifes use hundreds of precise pinpoint beams emanating from a source of irradiation that moves around the patient's head.



Saha, Gopal B. Fundamentals of Nuclear Pharmacy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999.


Society of Nuclear Medicine. "What Is Nuclear Medicine?" May 12, 2004 (May 27, 2004). <>.

Alexander Ioffe

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The word radiation comes from a Latin term that means "ray of light." It is used in a general sense to cover all forms of energy that travel through space from one place to another as "rays." Radiation may occur in the form of a spray of subatomic particles, like miniature bullets from a machine gun, or in the form of electromagnetic waves. Subatomic particles are the basic units of matter and energy (electrons, neutrons, protons, neutrinos, and positrons), which are even smaller than atoms. Electromagnetic waves are a form of energy that includes light itself, as well as other forms of energy such as X rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and radar.

In addition, the word radiation is sometimes used to describe the transfer of heat from a hot object to a cooler one that is not touching the first object. The hot object is said to radiate heat. You can feel the heat on your face when standing near a red-hot furnace, even if there is no movement of hot air between the furnace and you. What you feel is infrared radiation, a form of electromagnetic energy that we experience as heat.

When some people hear the word radiation, they think of the radiation that comes from radioactive materials. This radiation consists of both particles and electromagnetic waves. Both forms of radiation can be harmful because they carry a great deal of energy. When they come into contact with atoms, they tend to tear the atoms apart by removing electrons from them. This damage to atoms may cause materials to undergo changes that can be harmful or damaging. For example, plastics exposed to radiation from radioactive sources can become very brittle. (This effect can be contrasted to the passage of light and some other forms of electromagnetic radiation. These forms of energy generally have no lasting effect on a material. For example, a piece of clear plastic is not damaged when light passes through it.)

High energy radiation, such as that of X rays and gamma rays, is also called ionizing radiation, a name that comes from the ability of the radiation to remove electrons from atoms. The particles left behind when electrons are removed are called ions. Ionizing radiation can cause serious damage to both living and nonliving materials.

Electromagnetic radiation

Electromagnetic radiation travels in the form of waves moving in straight lines at a speed of about 186,282 miles (299,727 kilometers) per second. That speed is correct when electromagnetic radiation travels through a vacuum. When it passes through a transparent substance such as glass, water, or air, the speed decreases. However, the velocity of electromagnetic waves, also known as the speed of light in a vacuum, is a fundamental constant of nature. That is, it cannot be changed by humans or, presumably, by anything else. (The term velocity refers both to the speed with which an object is moving and to the direction in which it is moving.)

Electromagnetic radiation can have a variety of energies. Because it travels in the form of waves, the energies are often expressed in terms of wavelengths. The higher the energy of a wave, the shorter its wavelength. The wavelengths of known electromagnetic radiation range from less than 1010 centimeter for the highest energies up to millions of centimeters (tens of miles) for the lowest energies.

The energy of a wave can also be expressed by stating its frequency. The frequency of a wave is defined as the number of wave crests (or troughs; pronounced trawfs) that pass a given point per second. This is usually measured in vibrations or cycles per second. Scientists call one cycle per second a hertz, abbreviated Hz. Known electromagnetic radiations range in frequency from a few Hz for the lowest energies up to more than 1020 Hz for the highest.

Particulate radiation

Sprays or streams of invisibly small particles are often referred to as particulate radiation because they carry energy along with them as they fly through space. They may be produced deliberately in machines, such as particle accelerators (atom-smashers), or they may be emitted spontaneously from radioactive materials. Alpha particles and beta particles are emitted by radioactive materials, while beams of electrons, protons, mesons, neutrons, ions, and even whole atoms and molecules can be produced in particle accelerators (used to study subatomic particles and other matter), nuclear reactors (used to control the energy released by nuclear reactions), and other kinds of laboratory apparatus.

The only particulate radiation that might be encountered outside of a laboratory are alpha and beta particles emitted by naturally occurring radioactive materials. Both alpha particles and beta particles are charged subatomic particles. An alpha particle is the nucleus of a helium atom. It has an electric charge of +2 and a mass of 4 atomic mass units (amu). A beta particle is an electron. It has a charge of 1 and a mass of about 0.0055 amu.

Because of their electric charges, both alpha and beta particles attract or repel electrons in the atoms of any material through which they pass, thereby ionizing those atoms. If enough of these ionized atoms happen to be parts of essential molecules in a human body, the body's chemistry can be seriously disrupted, resulting in health problems.

Radiation and health

Large doses of any kind of radiation, ionizing or not, can be dangerous. Too much sunlight, for example, can damage a person's eyes or skin. Lasers can deliver such intense beams of light that they can burn through metalnot to mention human flesh. Microwaves in ovens are at such high levels they cook meats and vegetables.

On the other hand, small amounts of any kind of radiation are generally thought to be harmless. Even low doses of ionizing radiation from radioactive materials is probably not dangerous. The latter fact is of special importance because radioactive materials occur in small concentrations all around us.

[See also Electromagnetic field; Nuclear medicine; Radioactive tracers; Radioactivity; Subatomic particles; X rays ]

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342. Radiation

See also 316. PHYSICS .

the record produced by a bolometer.
a device used in bolometry.
the measurement of minute amounts of radiant energy, especially infrared spectra. bolometrist, n. bolometric, adj.
the capacity to transmit infrared radiation. diathermanous, adj.
a device, carried or worn by people working near radiation for measuring the amount of radiation to which they are exposed.
the measurement by a dosimeter of the dosage of radiation a person might have received. See also 130. DRUGS . dosimetrist, n. dosimetric, dosimetrical adj.
an instrument for measuring the emission of radiation in the form of visible light and identifying the substance that is its source. fluorometric, adj.
the measurement of fluorescence, or visible radiation, by means of a fluorometer. fluorometric, adj.
an examination by means of a screen coated with a fluorescent substance responsive to radiation from x rays. fluoroscopic, adj.
the study of metals and their structures and properties by the use of microscopy and x rays.
the science or technique of making x-ray photographs of the kidneys, renal pelves, and ureters, using injection of opaque solutions or radiopaque dyes. pyelographic, adj.
the sensitivity of some humans to radiation of various kinds, as in water divining or nonmedical diagnosis. radiesthetic, adj.
the state, property, or process of being radioactive.
the production of photographic images on film using radiation from other radioactive substances instead of light. Also called x-ray scotography, shadowgraphy . radiograph, radiographer, n. radiographic, radiographical, adj.
1. the science that studies x rays or radiation from radioactive substances, esp. for medical purposes.
2. the examination or photographing of parts of the body with such rays.
3. the interpretation of the resulting photographs. radiologist, n. radiologie, radiological, adj.
the study of metals and their structures by the use of x rays.
the study or observation of the inner structure of opaque materials by means of x rays or other radioactive substances. Also called curiescopy .
sensitivity to the effects of radiation, as of parts of the body. Also called radiosensitivity .
radiosensibility. radiosensitive, adj.
the science and technology of applying radiation and x rays to industrial use. See also 343. RADIO .
a method of treating diseases with x rays or the radiation from other radioactive substances. Also called actinotherapy . radiotherapist, n. radiotherapeutic, adj.
roentgenism, röntgenism
1. the treatment of disease with x rays or roentgen rays.
2. the effect of misuse or overexposure to these rays.
roentgenogram, röntgenogram
an x-ray photograph.
roentgenography, röntgenography
x-ray photography.
a radiograph.
x-ray photography of a selected plane of the body by a method that eliminates the outline of structures in other planes. tomographic, adj.
a process of recording x-ray images by electrostatic means. xeroradiographic, adj.
x-ray scotography

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radiation (rā´dēā´shən), term applied to the emission and transmission of energy through space or through a material medium and also to the radiated energy itself. In its widest sense the term includes electromagnetic, acoustic, and particle radiation, and all forms of ionizing radiation. Commonly radiation refers to the electromagnetic spectrum, which, in order of decreasing wavelength, includes radio, microwave, infrared, visible-light, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray emissions. All of these travel through space at the speed of light (c.300,000 km/186,000 mi per sec) but differ in wavelength and frequency. According to the quantum theory, the energy carried in the form of electromagnetic radiation may be viewed as made up of tiny bundles or packets, each bundle being known as a photon. The sun is the source of much radiant energy in the form of sunlight and heat. Heat radiation is infrared radiation. All types of electromagnetic radiation can be reflected and absorbed in the same manner as is visible light. Acoustic radiation, propagated as sound waves, may be sonic (in the frequency range from 16 to 20,000 cycles per sec), infrasonic, or subsonic (frequency less than 16 cycles per sec), and ultrasonic (frequency greater than 20,000 cycles per sec). Examples of particle radiation are alpha and beta rays in radioactivity, and many kinds of atomic and subatomic particles such as electrons, mesons, neutrons, protons, and heavier nuclei (see cosmic rays). Radiation is usually considered to travel from a source in straight lines, but its path may be affected by external factors; for instance, charged particles travel in curved paths in magnetic fields. The Van Allen radiation belts consist of charged particles trapped in the earth's magnetic field.

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RADIATION. In LINGUISTICS, a process of SEMANTIC CHANGE in which there is a multiplication in the senses of a word, phrase, or lexeme, whether within one language or across a number of languages. For example, in classical Greek, pápuros originally referred to a reed common in Egypt, used among other things for making into a writing surface. The word then came to refer to the writing material produced, and this is the dominant sense of the Latinate English word papyrus. In addition, pápuros has been adapted into other languages (into English as paper) without the original sense ‘reed’ and referring to writing material made from any source, whether reeds, cotton, linen, or wood pulp. In addition, the meaning of paper has radiated to include a written document or documents (from the 14c), a newspaper, a written or printed essay, a bill of exchange, and money (from the 17c), and a set of questions in an examination (from the 19c). See POLYSEMY.

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ra·di·a·tion / ˌrādēˈāshən/ • n. 1. Physics the emission of energy as electromagnetic waves or as moving subatomic particles, esp. high-energy particles that cause ionization. ∎  the energy transmitted in this way, as heat, light, electricity, etc. 2. chiefly Biol. divergence out from a central point, in particular evolution from an ancestral animal or plant group into a variety of new forms. DERIVATIVES: ra·di·a·tion·al / -ˈāshənl/ adj. ra·di·a·tion·al·ly / -ˈāshənl-ē/ adv.

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radiation (ray-di-ay-shŏn) n. energy in the form of waves or particles, such as gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, visible light, and infrared rays (radiant heat). r. sickness an acute illness caused by extreme exposure to rays emitted by radioactive substances, e.g. X-rays or gamma rays. Very high doses cause death within hours. Lower doses cause immediate symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea followed by damage to the bone marrow, loss of hair, and bloody diarrhoea; these can occur after radiotherapy.

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1. (in physics) Energy travelling in the form of electromagnetic waves or photons. See electromagnetic spectrum.

2. (in physics) A stream of particles, especially alpha- or beta-particles from a radioactive source or neutrons from a nuclear reactor. See also background radiation.

3. (in evolution)See adaptive radiation.

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radiation Transmission of energy by subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves. See electromagnetic radiation

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radiation Any form of emitted wave phenomena, usually the electromagnetic spectrum, sound, or heat.

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