A stick-on temporary tattoo in the form of a mini computer could be the next medical marvel, with the power to monitor muscle activity and deliver personalized therapy.
While researchers have created such a wearable device, they’ll encounter a few more challenges before it can be used in clinics and hospitals. But it’s still a major step that could enable a rich new source of data for biomedical researchers. Here’s Jessica Morrison, reporting for Nature:
Similar efforts to develop ‘electronic skin’ abound, but the device is the first that can store information and also deliver medicine — combining patient treatment and monitoring. Its creators, who report their findings today in Nature Nanotechnology, say that the technology could one day aid patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy.
The researchers constructed the device by layering a package of stretchable nanomaterials—sensors that detect temperature and motion, resistive RAM for data storage, microheaters and drugs—onto a material that mimics the softness and flexibility of the skin. The result was a sticky patch containing a device roughly 4 centimetres long, 2 cm wide and 0.003 millimetres thick, says study co-author Nanshu Lu, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas in Austin.
In November, Kim Tingley wrote for The New Yorker on the assent of cyborg skin, and the barriers that stand in the way of scientists’ ability to sync our electric bodies with our electronic devices. In writing about the first “electronic skin” breakthrough in 2011, Tingley notes:
The problem is physical: the body is soft, supple, and curved, but modern electronics, built on silicon computer chips, are rigid and flat, likely to shatter if dropped on a sidewalk. John Rogers, a shy-eyed materials scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, likes to point out that, in 3.5 billion years, evolution has solved countless challenging problems without creating something that looks like a silicon chip. “You think about the natural world, there’s a lot of rough and tumble,” he told me. “You have environments that are a lot less well-controlled than an iPhone case.” Researchers traditionally considered marrying electronics to biology using circuits made not from inorganic silicon but from pliable organic materials—the carbon-based building blocks of life. But current flows through these materials too slowly to power computers and gadgets.
Rogers and his team solved that problem by making their patch out of a stretchy lattice of sensors sandwiched between two protective layers—which in turn, sit on a sheet of polyester designed to imitate skin’s physical properties. It could record heartbeats, brain activity, and muscle contractions; the only problem was that the patch fell off after a few days. Lu’s and her colleagues’ device, though, is meant for continuous, long-term data storage—a first in the industry. It can also deliver drugs in response to the bodily information it receives.
Unfortunately, the device works only when connected to a power supply and a data transmitter. These materials would need to be nearly as soft as the “tattoo” itself. And even then, there would be other kinks to work out. But scientists have high hopes that the devices could liberate hospitals and clinics from the clunky straps and pads that currently help monitor patients’ well-being.