Biohacks: Magnet Time!

by Shara E. on October 18, 2012

Image  courtesy of Quinn Norton under Creative Commons

Last week I stayed on the more mainstream side of biohacking with the topic of implanting RFID chips, in humans, which is currently being studied by multiple organizations for use in Alzheimer’s patients and remote health care systems, this week we’re going a little bit more out on a limb.  In a word: magnets. More specifically, neodymium magnetic implants.

Neodymium magnets are one of, if not the strongest permanent magnets currently available on earth (meaning they are magnetic without an electrical current).  These magnets are capable of holding up to 1,000 times their weight (in rare cases), the larger ones must be transported by land or sea, so they don’t interfere with aircraft navigation, and they don’t require an electric charge to maintain their electric field.

In short, these things are pretty powerful.

While typically used in electronic devices (and also some really neat toys), neodymium magnets have also been embraced by many of the biohacking community, who have installed them in their wrists, fingers, legs and *ahem* other areas. With this in mind, the health effects of implanting a strong magnet in your body have not been studied much. So I have explored some of the issues, and here are some of the common questions I came across, and a few experimental (and based largely on extrapolation) forays into the health risks.

Why implant a neodymium manget anyway?

The main benefit of implanting neodymium magnets under the skin seems to be gaining a sort of “magnetic vision”, or ability to sense magnetic fields and polarity of various objects, similar to Electroreception in fish and sharks. The sensation seems to be one of those you-won’t-know-until-you-try-it kind of things, and since I’m currently not quite up to undergoing even minor surgical procedures for the sake of a class (Sorry Prof. Maynard), here is how neodymium magnet-pioneer Todd Huffman described it to BME News:

BME: And when you move into a magnetic field, what does it feel like?

TODD: There are two distinct feelings I get from fields. For a static field, like a bar magnet, it feels like a smooth pressure. Imagine running your hand slowly through lukewarm water, and brushing your finger across the top of a large invisible marshmallow. That is the closest description I can give. Oscillating fields, such as electric motors, security devices, transformers, et cetera, vibrate the magnet. This sensation is much more sensitive and noticeable……….The implant is rather sensitive. I can tell the polarity of a bar magnet from several inches away. So far the furthest I have felt an oscillating field has been about two and a half or three feet. That was the security system in a video store, which uses magnetic induction.

How is the magnet implanted?

The procedure is more involved than implanting an RFID chip, as the incision site for a neodynium implant will likely need to be sutured shut.  In the event that readers are curious, a video of a biohacker implanting the magnets in his finger tips can be seen here. Please be warned that this video does, in fact, show a man cutting into the tips of his fingers, and may not be for the squeamish.

“Flourescope of the magnet”                                                             Courtesy of Quinn Norton under Creative Commons

Where do the magnets go?

One of the better-publicized recent examples of magnetic implants is Dave Hurban, who famously installed four magnets in his wrist to hold his iPod Nano.  However, the two most common locations for implanting neodymium magnets are the fingertips and genital regions (don’t ask). The idea being that these two areas are where you will get the most effect/sensation, although also posits the possibility of implanting magnets in the lips for effect. Hopefully no one’s tested that yet. (Note: For a video of iDermal implant process click here. Please use your own discretion,the video involves a man, four magnets, his wrist and some sort of screwdriver/clamp. Use your imagination.)

So what are some potential health risks involved?

Now you know as a student of Public Health, I couldn’t just leave it there. So with a little bit of research, and a bit of my own brainstorming, there are a few potential hazards that will need to be dealt with. It’s worth noting here that there are very few individuals who have had neodymium magnets in their fingers for more than a few years so there is very little information on follow up, and all of it anecdotal. Therefore, please do not take my various ramblings as scientific fact, but more as an exploration of the possibilities.

Are there potential health risks from the magnet?

The key issue here is the coating used on the magnets, which are used to protect people from harm. Left uncoated, the magnets, or more specifically the iron in them will rust. At its extreme, overexposure to iron (and iron oxide)  can be fatal, however it is unlikely that the amount you would come into contact with through an uncoated neodymium magnet would have such effects.  On top of this, neodymium itself can be toxic to human beings, and can cause significant damage to the liver if it accumulates.  In order to deal with these dangers, the magnets are typically coated in gold and implant-grade silicone to prevent breakdown.

Additionally, the magnet may also damage flesh surrounding it over time. With long term exposure to the magnetic vibrations, there is a risk of mimicking Raynaud’s Disease, also known as white finger or dead finger, wherein blood vessels in the fingers (or other extremities) have narrowed significantly, leaving the area numb. Typically this is due to cold or stress, but it has also been documented in chainsaw operators due to the vibrations of the saw. In some cases the effects lasted twelve years or more after all chainsaw use had ceased. The pressure of the magnets on the surrounding flesh, both internally from the magnet and externally if something is attached and pinching the skin, may also potentially lead to necrosis over time, if the magnets are placed poorly or if they are overused

Image courtesy of user @Unqualified

What about medical devices?

The big question, for me at least, is what happens with a Magnetic Resonance Imager, or MRI, if you have an implant?  The short answer here is probably don’t.   However, and again this is all anecdotal, some biohackers have reported no problems with MRIs and their implants. This is also potentially supported by recent studies that suggest MRIs on patients with cochlear implants are in fact relatively safe, although they still interfere with image quality.  The composition of cochlear implants and neodymium magnets certainly differ, but it’s possible that this could support the biohackers’ claims.

Another issue that biohackers may have to worry about is interference with pacemakers. A study in 2008 found that the neodymium magnets could potentially interfere with cardiac pacemakers up to 30 cm away. However, a previous study had estimated the maximum distance that small neodymium magnets 8-10mm in diameter only caused interference up to about 3 cm away.

So what’s the verdict?

While I don’t know that I’ll be getting one for myself anytime soon, I am more interested in getting the neodymium magnets in my fingertips than an RFID chip in my hand. Online biohacker communities have put a lot of time and thought into ensuring that these procedures are as safe as possible. In the event that someone decides to get neodymium implants,  in their fingers or elsewhere, my number one recommendation would be to do your research.  And above all, make sure that you find someone who know’s what they’re doing!