While exploring the wonderful world of implant history last week, I found myself struggling to stay on topic. I was trying to stay mostly focused on the more “official” side of implants, butI kept tripping over some absolutely crazy, homemade implants that people have designed and used on themselves. Well that and an overwhelming number of pages about breast implants, but I’m ignoring those. While Steve Mann (who I mentioned last week) definitely ranks as one of the crazier examples of self-made implants I found, it turns out that there is a surprisingly large “Biohacking” community out on the Internet, and wow. These folks have done some crazy things to their bodies.
As someone who will definitely be first in line when Google figures out how to implant a search engine directly into my brain (thereby making Statistics so much easier for me to learn), I was seriously intrigued by some of the devices I came across. As a student at the School of Public Health, I also get that there are likely side effects to these forays into madness. So, my dear readers, I present to you, for your pleasure some of the results of my exploration; the crazy, the wacky, and the downright stupid things that people have put in their bodies, all in the name of science.
First off, a brief introduction to the term “Biohacking”, as far as I understand it: to steal from the highly scientific and utterly valid resource of Wikipedia, there are actually two meanings of the word, but in this case I am using the first:
Biohacking aims to make biology, and more particularly Do It Yourself (DIY) Biology experiments (See DIYBio) more accessible, and then goes running and screaming with the concept. In the realm of body modification, this means combining Hardware (technology), Software (apps) and Wetware (Humans) to achieve new heights for humanity — or something like that. One of the key ideas that I kept stumbling upon was the belief among biohackers that Humanity has reached the edge of its evolutionary potential. If we want more, we are going to have to do it ourselves. For more on biohacking, I recommend a short documentary made by The Verge. Be forewarned, there are quite a few shots involving surgical procedures, and descriptions of body rejections so it is best avoided by the squeamish. Currently, biohacking is mostly on the fringe of body modification, as Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware says in the documentary:
“ You pretty much have two ways to go, there’s the medical field and then there’s the piercers. And frankly, the piercers are just much more willing to talk about it.”
So what sort of hacks are people coming up with? Well, the short answer is a lot. This week I’m going to focus on Radio-Frequency Implant Devices (RFID) chips, which started out in the realm of biohacking (albeit in a more academic way), but have since become a potential future staple of the health industry. RFID chips use electromagnetic fields at radio frequencies to transfer information short distances.
RFID chip implants actually have the luxury of being slightly more academic in their history. Specifically at (and in) the hands of one Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Redding. Professor Warwick is listed on the Physics and Ethics Education Project’s website as a case study on scientific works and resulting ethical dilemmas, along with other moderately well known figures such as Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Robert Oppenheimer. In 2002, Warwick published results from an experiment where, having implanted a micro electrode array in his right arm, he was able to control a cybernetic hand in New York from Redding, as well as operate an electronic wheel chair. After 96 days the implant was removed, without any signs of rejection (more on rejection next week). However, of the 20 electrodes that were actually connected to his nervous system, only 3 were still intact. Warwick actually implanted himself with an RFID chip the first time in 1998, using it to monitor his movements around his Department, open the door to his lab, and cue his computer to great him when he walked through the door. Hopefully he never got “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that” as an answer.
Since then, RFID chip implants have become more common among the biohacker crowds, such that there are actually several DIY implant guides , kits and instructional videos available online. They have also become considerably more mainstream in the medical field, and are being studied for potential use in Alzheimer’s patients. There have, however, been some bumps along the way.
In 2007, an anti-chip advocacy group CASPIAN published a review entitled, “Microchip-Induced Tumors in Laboratory Rodents and Dogs: A Review of the Literature 1990–2006.“ The subsequent chaos resulted in PositiveID’s stock dropping nearly 50% over two weeks. PositiveID are the makers of Verichip, an RFID chip that was licensed for implantation in humans in 2004 and is also used in pets. However, the FDA did not recall Verichip’s approval for implantation in humans, citing the 34 studies attached to Verichip’s application that showed it was safe (relative to to the 8 studies presented by the report). TIME magazine also did a review of the report that did not turn out favorably. In terms of health risks, the biggest ones posed at the moment are probably those surrounding user error. These include failure to sterilize the chips before implantation, choosing a poor implantation site (such as the back of the wrist where it may impinge on nerves or blood vessels) and failure to properly care for the wound after implantation.
Additionally, I did find some websites that suggested using devices designed for implanting chips into pets, rather than finding a biohacker who is more specialized and has performed RFID implantations before.
Of course, there’s always the potential for new health risks to evolve with our increasing integration with technology. Not only are we vulnerable to biological pathogens, but we are potentially vulnerable to technologically based ones as well.
Coming up next week: MAGNETS!!!!
[Update: Edited for typos, punctuation fixes, and changing one or two sentences for the purpose of clarification]