On the Grind: The World of Do-It-Yourself Implants

Visit the forums on Biohack.me and one of the first threads you'll come across is titled “So you want to put a magnet in your finger...” Other notable topics include threads on RFID, electric brain stimulation, haptic tattoos, and one particularly philosophical and speculative thread simply titled “Lifespan Extension.”

July 31, 2013

13 Min Read
On the Grind: The World of Do-It-Yourself Implants

The Web site, one of many like it, is devoted to grinding. Grinders, as they call themselves, represent a unique niche of the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture. These are people who experiment on their own bodies, creating their own implants—often for recreation, but also with a true spirit of academic experimentation. The message is clear: Implants are the future, and some people aren't waiting around for FDA or the medical device industry.

If you don't have access to a university hospital and want to get a magnet implanted in your finger, the best place to visit is a tattoo, piercing, or body modification shop, where an artist will place a subdermal magnet into your finger—likely using ice instead of anesthetic for legal reasons. Once healed, the magnet provides a sixth sense, allowing you to feel the presence of magnet fields. You may be tempted to ask why, but for grinders and researchers the answer is, why not? For people with the implant, it becomes as viable as taste or sight and even opens up a potential for new, enhanced senses.

Rich Lee, a grinder, describes the sensation. “It feels like it has a texture. It's a localized feeling. It's something there at all times. But unless you focus on it you don't feel it much,” Lee says. He describes being able to perceive the magnet fields in electronics around him. “With my old cellphone, for example, I'd know when it would ring beforehand because I'd feel the magnets inside it going off.” And yes, you can use the magnet to pick up tiny metal objects with your finger. 

While putting magnets into your fingers may have started as the latest trend for piercing enthusiasts, the idea of using implants to modify, replace, and even enhance our senses has been the focus of serious academic work for quite some time. Kevin Warwick is professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, where he carries out research in artificial intelligence, control, robotics, and biomedical engineering. He's considered the world's foremost expert on cybernetics and has spoken on the subject at TED events. 

By implanting a chip into his arm, Kevin Warwick was able to remotely control a robotic arm.

In 1998, Warwick became the world's first cyborg when he briefly implanted an RFID chip into his arm that allowed him to identify himself within his building at Reading. As they picked up the RFID signal, lights would automatically come on and machines would greet him as he walked through the halls. In 2002, Warwick took his work a step further and implanted an electrode array into his arm that allowed him to remotely control a robotic arm via the Internet. 

Today, Warwick and his students are continuing their research into implants that can be used to help the disabled and augment the rest of us. “It's interesting sometimes because we're trying to write scientific papers, but the research we start with is more from the artistic side, so we have to translate it," Warwick says. He describes one student who has used finger magnets as a form of sensory enhancement, connecting them to an infrared sensor, which allows him to perceive the temperature of objects remotely. The military application for this is immediate, Warwick says. “If you're a soldier and you're about to go into a room and you don't know if there's anybody there or not, you can push your finger around a corner and scan.” Another researcher, Paul Bach-y-Rita, has developed a system for the blind that converts images from a camera into electrical pulses that trigger receptors in the tongue, allowing the patient to communicate and perceive shapes in space.  

Warwick says research even as simple as the finger magnets has great implications for the disabled. “The magnet creates a touch sensation. If you were to, say, link it with ultrasonic signals, you could effectively feel how far away objects are,” he says of a type of implant that could assist the blind. “It wouldn't affect their sight, but they would know how far objects away are.” 

A few years ago, Rich Lee awoke to find that he had lost most of the vision in his right eye overnight. Doctors tell him he could lose sight in his other eye at any time. His only option is a cornea transplant, which Lee says he cannot afford right now. But Lee, a grinder and entrepreneur, has embraced a homebrew solution to his ailment. He's implanted electronic earphones into both ears (in the tragus). As Warwick explained, by connecting his implants to an ultrasonic rangefinder, Lee can use them to detect the proximity of objects without using his sight. While the feat is nothing new for a cutting-edge device maker, consider that Lee has no professional background in science or engineering. His background is in finance, and he's self-taught from free online courses on engineering and medical implants offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. Lee built his implants using instructions freely available on YouTube and the DIY Web site Instructables.com

Rich Lee can use his earphone implants to listen to music and for a variety of other purposes.

Although his device doesn't offer true echolocation yet, Lee, who has several DIY implants in his body (including a finger magnet), says he's working toward it. One idea he has found is to connect a pair of glasses capable of sending an electronic signal to his implants. He has also done other experiments. For example, he found that by connecting his earphone implants to a contact microphone he can enhance his own hearing—allowing him to hear longer distances and even through walls. “That one creeped out a lot of people,” Lee laughs. 

Lee is one of the figures at the forefront of the grinding movement, a passion he says grew out of his longtime fascination with futuristic technology. “I got into it around 2008. My grandmother passed away and left me a big tub of old magazines. I looked through it and found a bunch of medical and technology articles from the '50s, '60s, and '70s that depicted this Jetsons-like future where you were going be a cyborg and live forever,” Lee says. “I just had one of those moments where I thought this might not ever come, especially with the FDA rules on medical implants. I don't know if recreational cybernetics is going to be commercially available anytime soon. It's something I've always wanted, but I figured I'd launch myself into it and start going the DIY route.”

Rules and regulations come up a lot in these discussions. Lee says he and the various groups and individuals he works with have come up with a variety of prototypes for medical and recreational purposes. Among the boldest prototypes is a modification to an artificial lung that is capable of regulating body temperature by heating and cooling blood as it passes through the device. An online-based group called Grindhouse Wetwares is currently developing an implant codenamed Circadia, which, if successful, will read biomedical and vital sign data and transmit it wirelessly to a smartphone or computer. The implant could even be capable of providing warnings via text to your smartphone or LED lights embedded beneath the skin. A representative of Grindhouse Wetwares declined to be interviewed for this article, but stated in an e-mail that the team is working around the clock on its latest project. Lee expects the group to try the first Circadia implant in October. 

Another project involves a subdermal EEG implant that allows people to communicate and even display their moods through a computer interface. Lee has consulted with companies that think the device would be perfect for patients with locked-in syndrome (a form of waking paralysis) and would allow them to communicate with the outside world.

However, as feasible as some of their ideas may sound, Lee says he and other individuals have had trouble finding companies to get on board and embrace what they're trying to do. “A lot of these things we're cranking out are so niche and experimental that I could really see FDA just turning their nose up at it,” Lee says. When asked about the most popular of the various device prototypes he has developed, Lee shyly states that it's an “adult-themed” device: a vibrator that can be implanted in the pelvic region. “I have a surprising amount of interest in the female version in France and a few other places, but men worldwide have expressed interest in a male version and will often e-mail me for updates.” Lee says he even approached two device companies about designing the product and getting it up to FDA code but was shot down by both. “They just didn't want to be anywhere near it,” he says. “They say it's doable, but they just don't want it in their product portfolio.” 

Warwick has experienced similar apprehension from the industry even in his academic work. “Maybe [companies] are a little bit scared about publicity,” he says. “Our first RFID experiment used a chip from an American company, but they said, 'Don't mention our name; don't tell anyone it's our product.' They were happy to get results, but they didn't want to be associated with it because the material the chip is made of hadn't been used as an implant before.” 

However, Lee adds that there are plenty of individuals in the device industry who are involved in grinding but prefer to remain anonymous to preserve their or their company's reputation. “I consult with a lot with professionals in the field,” Lee says. “I'll send e-mails and ask questions all the time, and they don't necessarily know what I'm doing, but they're usually happy to answer questions. I think I've got a good set of advisors who've managed to get devices through FDA and critiqued me here and there.” He says biologists and engineers often anonymously post on grinder forums and Internet chatrooms looking for novel functions for implants and offering guidance. 

Based on estimates he has received, Lee believes it would take five years and require rougly $1 million in investment to get his devices through FDA. 

But why the impatience, particularly in a landscape with more and more innovative medical device companies emerging every year? What is it that compels people like Lee and Warwick to put their own bodies at risk for the sake of moving the technology forward? “There is kind of an impatience in part because a lot of people feel the same way I do in that the government is never going to catch up,” Lee says. “If you're a kid and everyone's telling you that you'll be a cyborg someday and able to do all these cool things and the technology is there, but you can't have it because no one will sell it to you, because the government hasn't caught on to the concept of these elective devices, it makes a lot of us in the do-it-yourself crowd impatient.” Lee also points out that self-experimentation is nothing new in the medtech industry. In the early days of implant and biomaterials research it was not uncommon to hear about a researcher implanting a dog, or even himself, to test a material. 

The grinding community wants to extend an olive branch to device companies and regulatory bodies, letting them know that the culture isn't about subverting the industry and that grinders aren't out to give a middle finger to FDA. Lee says he and other grinders would love and welcome participation or even coaching from the medical device community, even if it's just casual direction or design assistance. “Of course I'd like to see the government lighten up, but of course with some devices like an artificial lung or artificial heart, I think those things should go through some rigorous tests, especially if it's a lifesaving device,” Lee says. “But if you're talking about devices that are subdermal and are just going into your skin and not your organs, as long as they're designed soundly, I think it'd be awesome if there were some sort of express lane for these things.” 

Lee says he would encourage FDA to allow the public to assume more of its own risk when it comes to recreational implants. “Some guidelines along the lines of, 'This implant is approved for subdermal applications for six-month periods.' ”

Warwick agrees that regulation is necessary, but also encourages device companies to be more active in this arena. “[Regulation] does put roadblocks in the way, but I think they are appropriate roadblocks that make you stop and think,” he says.

“At this stage, from a research point of view, realistically, we're trying one-off experiments. We're not about to produce 6000 products. So, from a manufacturer's point of view, one-off experimentation would be helpful and wouldn't do any harm,” Warwick adds. “Certainly in the UK maybe it's easier with the device agency approval. Device agencies are probably a bit tougher in the United States. Clearly, the legal side of things in the United States is a bit different if you get it wrong there, whereas you might not get litigation in the UK.”

Rich Lee discusses his headphone implants

 But while subcultures and academics are quick to embrace implant technology, the question still remains: What would it take to get the general public interested? Skeptics point out that there are plenty of external devices that are noninvasive and still capable of doing what many implants could do.

The key in Warwick's mind is generating an overall sense of acceptance among the public. “Helping people with disabilities is the short-term fix, as it were, that's pushing on the technology to an extent," he says. "When people are ethically happy with a technology, it moves things forward.” He points out that there are already several devices, such as deep-brain stimulation implants for Parkinson's patients and others for sensory replacement and remote control, that have been readily embraced.

“Look at cellphones for example,” Warwick says. “First it was a geeky thing and these brick-sized things with poor reception. But enough people pushed it and they got smaller and cheaper until now, you can't be without it. And if you haven't got one, what's wrong with you? It’s a very short space of time, within 25 years, during which cellphone technology went from nonexistent to a necessity,” says Warwick.

While grinders have no illusions that they're coming from the fringes, ulimately what Lee and his fellow grinders would like is for industry and regulators to be less dismissive of their activities. If researchers like Warwick have their way, we might not have a choice. It could sneak up on us before we know it.

“If socially there's a number of people using the technology and it's being pushed forward, then I think everyone will say 'I should be a part of that,'" Warwick adds. "There will be a stage, a sort of social tipping point, where there will be a number of those and it becomes more of a commercial reality and people feel they have to go for it.” 

Learn from the Industry's best subject matter experts on the design and manufacture of implantable medical devices! 

Design of Implantable Devices Conference- Sept. 26-27, 2013

-Chris Wiltz, Associate Editor, MD+DI
[email protected]

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