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Why do animals sense magnetic fields?

Many animals use the Earth’s magnetic field in order to gain a sense of direction. Magnetoreception or the sense of magnetic stimuli can occur down to the cellular level in the body. In mammals, that sense of direction occurs spontaneously or through learned behaviors. But how much do scientists really know about how we sense and respond to magnetic fields?

Can the human brain detect magnetic fields?

Scientists at California Institute of Technology have discovered that the human brain can sense magnetic cues (2, 3). When a magnetoelectric field moves relative to the brain, the brain can detect these sensory changes. In mice, these magnetic fields can be assessed using magnetic material for nest building and Morris water mazes. But there is far more to this story. To learn more, check out our references below!

Image of Magnetic Fields Modified from Newsweek
Image of Magnetic Fields Modified from Newsweek

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  1. Painter, Michael & Davis, Madison & Ganesh, Shruthi & Rak, Ella & Brumet, Kelsie & Bayne, Hunter & Malkemper, Pascal & Phillips, John. (2018). Evidence for plasticity in magnetic nest-building orientation in laboratory mice. Animal Behaviour. 138. 93-100. 10.1016/j.anbehav.2018.02.006.
  2. Human Magnetoreception Laboratory at California Institute of Technology (CalTech)
  3. Connie X. Wang, Isaac A. Hilburn, Daw-An Wu, Yuki Mizuhara, Christopher P. Cousté, Jacob N. H. Abrahams, Sam E. Bernstein, Ayumu Matani, Shinsuke Shimojo, Joseph L. Kirschvink. Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from alpha-Band Activity in the Human Brain. eNeuro 18 March 2019, 6 (2) ENEURO.0483-18.2019; DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0483-18.2019.

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