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In the near future, it is very likely that hospital patients will no longer have to be hooked up to wires and monitors thanks to the emergence of temporary electronic tattoos which can be used to monitor the vital signs of a patient.
The medical ‘tattoo’ is an epidermal electronic patch which can be temporarily tattooed onto a patient’s body. This innovative biomedical device was created by Dr John Rogers and a team of researchers at the University of Illinois, and is a significant breakthrough in human-machine interfaces. Using the patch, doctors can monitor the vital signs of their patients without the need for invasive procedures.
The patch consists of a peelable gossamer-thin layer of electronics, which is designed to detect and record a series of signals in order to directly check the health of a patient’s brain, heart and muscles. The electronic skin patch is thinner than human hair and is encased in water-soluble plastic. It can be transferred onto the skin, in the same way a temporary tattoo-transfer would be applied, with the backing peeled off before it is brushed with water and pasted.
The patch clings to the skin as a result of attractive forces between molecules. Dr Rogers and his team used brittle silicon to create wires which are just a few billionths of a metre thick. The silicon wires give the patch a similar flexibility to that of skin, thereby allowing people to be able to stretch and bend, without any noticeable difference.
The epidermal electronic patch has been further enhanced by the research team in order to be able to measure muscle activity, as well as to stimulate particular muscles which could be used for the rehabilitation of patients.
During the study, the patch was worn for up to 24 hours and no sign of disturbance or loss of function or skin irritation was noticed. The main disadvantage of this new technology is that it cannot be used on a long-term basis as the skin constantly produces new cells, resulting in the cells on the surface dying meaning that the patch has to be replaced at least every fortnight
Benefits of the Technology
Dr Rogers’ innovative biomedical technology will allow hospitals to no longer require the use of bulky machines in order to monitor the vital signs of their patients. With the emergence of this technology, a hospital room no longer needs to be crowded with a mass of wires, monitors and gel-coated sticky pads.
The patch is easy to attach on the skin as well as to remove, as well as being flexible enough as not to not hinder the patient’s movement yet sturdy enough not to break. The wireless capabilities of the patch enable data to be transmitted to the patient’s mobile phone and to the doctor’s office. The patch will allow medical conditions to be monitored in a more reliable, simpler and uninterrupted way.
Electrical engineer Todd Coleman of the University of California tested his version of the electronic ‘tattoos’ which were used to study brain wave activity in a non-invasive way and later used the collected data to control machines. The small and flexible patches were also tested on the throat to act as sub-vocal microphones via which people could communicate silently and wirelessly.
The electronic patches could be very useful in many sporting performance applications, in particular they could be used to measure how hydrated an athlete’s skin is using solar-powered epidermal electronics. In addition smaller and less invasive patches could potentially be used to monitor premature babies, without the need to wear wires throughout the night.