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Lin, James C.*†; Wang, Zhangwei

doi: 10.1097/01.HP.0000250644.84530.e2
RF Biophysics: Review Article

The hearing of microwave pulses is a unique exception to the airborne or bone-conducted sound energy normally encountered in human auditory perception. The hearing apparatus commonly responds to airborne or bone-conducted acoustic or sound pressure waves in the audible frequency range. But the hearing of microwave pulses involves electromagnetic waves whose frequency ranges from hundreds of MHz to tens of GHz. Since electromagnetic waves (e.g., light) are seen but not heard, the report of auditory perception of microwave pulses was at once astonishing and intriguing. Moreover, it stood in sharp contrast to the responses associated with continuous-wave microwave radiation. Experimental and theoretical studies have shown that the microwave auditory phenomenon does not arise from an interaction of microwave pulses directly with the auditory nerves or neurons along the auditory neurophysiological pathways of the central nervous system. Instead, the microwave pulse, upon absorption by soft tissues in the head, launches a thermoelastic wave of acoustic pressure that travels by bone conduction to the inner ear. There, it activates the cochlear receptors via the same process involved for normal hearing. Aside from tissue heating, microwave auditory effect is the most widely accepted biological effect of microwave radiation with a known mechanism of interaction: the thermoelastic theory. The phenomenon, mechanism, power requirement, pressure amplitude, and auditory thresholds of microwave hearing are discussed in this paper. A specific emphasis is placed on human exposures to wireless communication fields and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) coils.

* Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL 60607-7053; Department of Bioengineering, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL 60607-7053.

For correspondence contact: James C. Lin, 851 South Morgan Street (M/C 154), University of Illinois–Chicago, Chicago, IL 60607-7053, or email at

(Manuscript accepted 5 October 2006)

©2007Health Physics Society