Science Questions

Do humans navigate with tiny magnets?

Sun, 30th Mar 2008

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Question

Richard Hawkins, New Zealand. asked:

My sense of directionís absolutely appalling and Iím wondering about the deposits of iron in the brain. In the same way that bacteria make these miniature magnets we know other animals, including possibly us, also have them. How do they contribute to us having a sense of direction? How do they work?

Answer

We put this question to Dr Sarah Staniland:

Sarah: Well, there definitely is some research thatís definitely true for human populations. There are these particles of magnetite which is the iron oxide and we definitely have these nanoparticles of iron oxide in our brains too. There is compelling evidence to say that they do indeed have a navigational side to them.

Chris: Thereíve been researchers who put things like pigeons and bats in magnetic fields and managed to remagnetise their internal compass so they go off-course.

Sarah: Thatís right

Chris: If you remagnetise your bacteria do they go off course?

Sarah: Yes, they do!

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