Wireless "tattoo" monitors your health and could become electronic bandage

Serpentine-shaped electronics can bend with skin

ees tattoo
Researchers are touting a wireless skin-thin, microelectronic tattoo as an alternative to hard-wired electrodes for healthcare tests or monitoring and ultimately new applications such as electronic bandages.

Researchers say they have created a new class of micro-electronics they call an epidermal electronic system (EES) which utilizes miniature serpentine-shaped sensors, light-emitting diodes, tiny transmitters and receivers and networks of wire filaments into an ultra-thin material that sticks to your skin like a stick-on tattoo.

Background: High-tech healthcare technology gone wild

The EES device is 50-microns thick--thinner than the diameter of a human hair-and integrated onto the polyester backing.  It was developed by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, Tufts University, the Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore, and Dalian University of Technology in China.

The researchers said that while existing technologies accurately measure heart rate, brain waves and muscle activity, EES devices offer the opportunity to apply sensors that have almost no weight, no external wires and require negligible power. The devices can draw power from stray (or transmitted) electromagnetic radiation through the process of induction and can harvest a portion of their energy requirements from miniature solar collectors, the researchers said.

"The mechanics behind the design for our serpentine-shaped electronics makes the device as soft as the human skin," said Northwestern University engineer Yonggang Huang in a statement. "The design enables brittle, inorganic semiconductors to achieve extremely vast stretchability and flexibility. Plus, the serpentine design is very useful for self-adhesion to any surface without using glues."

The group said that areas of the body difficult to fit with sensors may now be monitored, including the throat.  In fact they ran a test monitoring throat muscle activity during speech and they could differentiate words in vocabulary and even control a voice-activated video game interface with greater than 90 % accuracy. That means EES devices might provide utility for those who suffer from certain diseases of the larynx, the group said. 

 The researchers are also exploring clinical approaches, particularly for ailments where sensor size is critical, such as sleep apnea and neonatal care.

Eventually researchers say the technology could incorporate microfluidic devices opening up a new arena of electronic bandages and enhanced-functioning skin, potentially accelerating wound healing or treating burns and other skin conditions.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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