Magnet implants – to (re)gain a fifth sense

Did you know that the main reason for hearing problems and deafness is hair loss? And that magnets can be part of the rescue?

Following last week’s post on magnet implants, I will now show you an example where magnet implants are truly functional, and are already in use: cochlear implants, advanced hearing aids.

Cochlea is the fancy name for the inner ear. As you know sound waves enter the ear through the outer ear, goes through the ear canal and reaches middle ear where the eardrum, hammer, anvil and the stirrup starts vibrating in a chain. The vibrations reach the inner ear, the cochlea, where the mechanical energy is converted into electrical signals that nerv cells can transport to the brain so that we can make sense of the sounds.

So, I mentioned that hair loss can lead to hearing problems?

The cochlea is a spiralling tube that is filled with fluid and lined with sensory cells, aka ‘hair cells’, through the whole tube. The hair cells have varying sensitivity to sound frequencies; high pitch tones are absorbed in the base of the spirall, and base tones further in, in the apex. When the vibrations from a sound enters the cochlea, the liquid starts moving, and the surface of the hair cell moves correspondingly. These movements creates tension differences which produce electrical signals that are passed along the hearing nerve to the brain.

It’s all very nicely animated in this video by Med-El (from which the description above is taken):

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 11.12.41

Hearing problems can be due to defects and damages in either the outer, middle, or inner ear. Most are related to the inner ear, and the lack of, or damaged, hair cells in the cochlea!

Damaged hair cells can cause distorted hearing, tinnitus, and deafness. It is also the reason why humans get worse hearing when growing old, becausethe hair cells can get damaged by noise, drugs, infections etc, and they can’t regrow.

Under an electron microscope, it can look like this:


image source:

Luckily, there is help to be found: the cochlear implant. Unlike the ear, there are only two parts of it, the external and the internal. The external part consists of a microphone that picks up sound, and a speech processor that digitizes the sound into signals which are then transmitted into the (internal) cochlear implant by a transmitting coil. On the inside, in the actual implant, there is an internal processor placed behind the ear (fixed in a bone), that picks up the message and sends electrical energy to an array of up to 22 electrodes that has been inserted into the cochlea and replaced the hair cells in the job of stimulating the auditory nerve fibers in there.

CIdiagram_MAESTRO Cross Section_720

Image source:

The surgery takes a couple of hours and the patient can normally go home on the same day. After 1–4 weeks of healing, the implant is “activated” by connecting the external part to the internal device, via magnets on each sides! (shown more clear below)


Image source:

The initial results of the implant vary widely, and post-implantation therapy is required as well as time for the brain to adapt to hearing new sounds.

Hearing with the implant is not exactly like normal hearing; voices can sound static, robotic or cartoonish. You can try it out on this site.

Remember, 22 electrodes have been given the task to replace 16000 hair cells which is quite a challenge, so there are ideas to increase the number of electrodes. Most patients only get the implant on one ear, but studys suggest that it might help to get one on the second ear as well. This would give stereo hearing and help in sound localisation, and it might even make music appreciable.

The implant is only for people with severe hearing problems, or that are deaf. It is for adults who have been able to hear before, and learnt how to process sounds, or for children who have not passed the critical time where humans learn this, so preferably before the age of 2-3. (Kids who lack an auditory nerve can get auditory brainstem implant, which is similar but the signal goes straight to the brainstem instead of the cochlea.)

The implant is quite expensive so it is more frequent in richer countries. The cost for the implant should however be related to what is saved on special-education costs that are no longer needed. In 2000 it was stated that 1/10 children born deaf in the US had cochlear implants, and the number was expected to grow fast.

Hopefully it will, because:

Seeing the reaction of someone regaining their sense of hearing is truly something.
Or an infant that hear it’s parents’ voices for the first time.


Read more:


‘A sixth sence’ through magnet implants

Body-hackers (and scientists) use technology to evolve the human body.

Physical appearance has always been important for us humans, and through history there has been quite a variation of methods we’ve used to improve or change our appearance. Most common in our days is the use of clothes and cosmetics, but during the last few decades it has become increasingly popular with surgical methods to enhance lips, breasts, hairgrowth etc, or to get a tattoo or a piercing.

Now there are people, so called ‘body-hackers’, that seems to be taking this one step further, and not only change how they look, but instead change how they function.

 “How much can I push the human, how much can I consciously evolve the human body, to do more, to do it better, do it faster and stronger ”, Shawn Sarver says in the documentary “Biohackers: A journey into cyborg America” before he gets a Neodymium magnet impanted in his finger.  But why does he do it?


 Picture 1. Paper clip attracted to magnet implant in finger. Source:

After the operation, whenever he enters a magnetic field, the magnet starts reacting to that, and vibrates. The stronger the field, the more it vibrates, and because the magnet is surrounded by nerv cells in the finger, he can ‘feel’ the magnetism. This ‘sixth sense’ is called magnetoception – the ability to sense magnetic fields, just like sea turtless and birds!

It was first done in 2005, and since then several people have followed, and perfected the procedure through trials, errors and online discussions. But it is of course still not something I would recommend, mainly because you can’t have it done by a surgeon. Instead you have to consult a specialised body artist, and they are not allowed to use anesthesia, why it is a very painful procedure!


Picture 2. The operation. Source: “Biohackers: A journey into cyborg America”

To insert the magnet, you need to open up your finger with a scalpel, and then insert the magnet with a tweezer or a big syringe. With the magnet in position, you need to sew up. After the surgery it will take a few days for the scar tissue to build, and for nerv endings to settle. Then you will feel the sensation of the magnet touching your nerv cells, but it will take a while before your brain understands what it is.

The main risk is infections. As with all surgerys, there are risks with contamination from the air or any objects that are close, and could give infections. And with the use of scalpel, there is always a risk of cutting something wrong. The magnet is a potential risk as well, and has to be coated with a compound that is suitable for the environment inside the finger.


Picture 3. X-ray of the hand with the implant. Source:

It is suggested that the best position of the magnet is on the ring finger of your secondary hand, because if something goes very wrong, you want it to be on your least important finger. Also it shouldn’t be between the bone and the touch surface because if you have to grab something in an emergency situation, that could really hurt, and shatter the magnet.

How will this ‘sixth sense’ change your life?

The risk of demagnetising your credit card or disk drives are minimal, remember you can only lift very light objects, like the paperclip, with it, but I wouldn’t enter an MRI with the implant still in.

You will be able to sense magnetic fields – the finger will vibrate when close to an electric motor or a microwave oven. You will be able to pick up tiny metal objects, determine if a metal is ferrous. For electronics you could feel which wires are dead and live. And I bet some people do it just for the party trick. But not everyone.

Remember the guy from the video above, Shawn Sarver? He is part of Grindhouse Wetware who are developing a product called ‘Bottlenose’ that you put on the finger with the implant, and stimulates it with additional senses. For example, they are using an IR sensor that detects remote temperatures and emits an induced magnetic field – that the magnet will react on. The stronger vibration – the warmer it is. The video on this link shows how a person with blindfold successfully finds a person that is hiding in a room, using this device.

The same, and other similar, activities are actually also done in university environments. Professor Kevin Warwick (video link) of Reading University has studied various examples of sensory substitution. Using ultrasound instead of infrared light, you could feel how far away objects are from the finger, like a radar.

Professor Warwick sees potential applications in both the military and healthcare sector.


TEDx Warwick