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Essential Science: Smart tattoos for monitoring health

The development comes from a joint project between Harvard and MIT researchers, and it’s in the form of a tattoo ink that has the capability to monitor the health of the wearer by changing color. For example, a color change could signify that an athlete is dehydrated or signal to a diabetic their blood sugar is rising up.

The form of ink used is a biosensitive type (a liquid with biosensors). The aim of the research was to take this formulation and combine it with tattoo artistry and create a medical monitoring tool that avoids the limitations of more conventional biomedical monitoring devices (which have limitations because they do not seamlessly integrate with the human body). The biosensitive ink transforms the surface of the human skin into a type of “interactive display”.

The project, which was led by Dr. Katia Vega, is called DermalAbyss. The research was presented to the Proceedings of the 2017 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers, which took place in September 2017. This was under the title ‘The Dermal Abyss: Interfacing with the Skin by Tattooing Biosensors.’

Color changes signal health changes

Different inks are used for different medical conditions. For example, one ink shifts from pink to purple in relation to pH levels. Other functions of other inks include responding to glucose and the detection of sodium (a shift to a vibrant green hue). All chemical changes are in reaction to the body’s interstitial fluid. Some details about the development of the inks are shown in the following video:

One of the lead researchers, Ali Yetisen, told “We were thinking: New technologies, what is the next generation after wearables? And so we came up with the idea that we could incorporate biosensors in the skin.”

A future medical device?

At present, Dermal Abyss has been run as a proof of concept study conducted on pig skin and further modifications ill be required, such as stabilizing the ink so that designs do not fade or diffuse into surrounding tissue. After this, medical trials will be required to assess cytoxicity and patient biocompatibility. A related area will include the development of an app to analyze a picture of the ink and provide quantitative diagnostic results. Such results could also be sent wirelessly to a medical center.

There are also interesting marketing possibilities, linking the bioinks up with tattoo artists to create regular tattoo art. There are also ethical issues to weigh up for depending of the site of the tattoo and person’s health information will be there for all to see.

Electronic medical tattoos

The friendly new electrode is comfortable and accessible  allowing users to carry on as usual with t...

The friendly new electrode is comfortable and accessible, allowing users to carry on as usual with their daily routines, while monitoring their muscle activity for many hours, for a range of medical and other purposes.
Prof. Yael Hanein, Tel Aviv University

In a related area, as Digital Journal has reported earlier, the company Chaotic Moon has developed a type of tattoo that is capable of acting as an advanced fitness tracker. The Tech Tats technology contains electronic components, such as a microcontroller and LED lights, which can track vital signs like someone’s heart beat, body temperature and blood pressure.

Another area of skin-related medical devices comes from Tel Aviv University. This is a type of skin electrode, where the flat structure resembles a temporary skin tattoo. This is for recording electrical signals through the skin to assess information about a patient’s physiological condition.

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we asked what can the structure of the World Wide Web tell scientists about protein structures? The answer was ‘quite a bit’, according to Ohio State University researchers. The scientists discovered molecular ‘add-ons’ that customize key protein interfaces.

The week before we looked at next-generation fuel cells and how the ‘wonder material’ graphene plays a pivotal role in developing appropriate electrodes to maximize fuel cell efficiency.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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