Scientists Create Electronic “Second Skin”
A team of US scientists led by John A. Rogers, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, has developed an “electronic tattoo” that could make a huge difference in monitoring patients’ heart and brain. The tiny electronic sensor can be attached to skin like a temporary tattoo; it can bend, stretch and wrinkle without breaking, says the BBC. The skin-like circuits could replace bulky equipment like wires, cables, monitors, pads coated with sticky gel, are much more comfortable to wear and “give the wearer complete freedom of movement,” says Science Daily.
Electrical and computer engineering professor Todd Coleman notes that these “wearable electronics” can connect a person “to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable”:
The patches are initially mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic, then laminated to the skin with water — just like applying a temporary tattoo. Alternately, the electronic components can be applied directly to a temporary tattoo itself, providing concealment for the electronics….
Skin-mounted electronics have many biomedical applications, including EEG and EMG sensors to monitor nerve and muscle activity.
One major advantage of skin-like circuits is that they don’t require conductive gel, tape, skin-penetrating pins or bulky wires, which can be uncomfortable for the user and limit coupling efficiency. They are much more comfortable and less cumbersome than traditional electrodes and give the wearers complete freedom of movement.
“If we want to understand brain function in a natural environment, that’s completely incompatible with EEG studies in a laboratory,” said Coleman, now a professor at the University of California at San Diego. “The best way to do this is to record neural signals in natural settings, with devices that are invisible to the user.”
What’s more, the tiny electronic sensors can be placed on the throat and are able to recognize differences in words such as up, down, left, right, go and stop. Researchers were able to use them to control a simple computer game but someone with muscular or neurological disorders, such as ALS, could potentially wear one of them circuits and use them to interface with computers.
At less than 50 micrometers thick, the circuits are thinner than a human hair. They can be worn up to 24 hours and still work, while not irritating the skin. But because our skin constantly produces new cells and those on the surface die and “are brushed off,” the sensors can’t be used for extended periods of time.
Using one of these sensors would certainly help with getting an EEG done for my son Charlie. Charlie’s autistic and doesn’t have seizures, but has some kind of unusual neurological activity going on that no one can quite put their finger on. He’s had two EEGS, one in which each electrode had to be attached to his head with gel. Charlie was 3 1/2 years old when he had this done and to say that he was not happy about it is an understatement. He was so exhausted from struggling to have the electrodes applied that he simply fell asleep as the technician started the actual test.
Two years ago, we were able to do an hour-long EEG through the use of a shower-cap like device that had the electrodes already all attached to it; the technician just had to put the whole thing over Charlie’s head (and they had a huge armchair in their office that he could slump in). Charlie still had to sit for the whole hour as there were wires running from the electrodes to a computer. The “electronic tattoo” developed by the University of Illinois scientists would be far easier to attach (though I guess it helps that Charlie has really short hair — a buzz cut). Plus (assuming Charlie didn’t try to pull the sensor off), it could monitor his brain activity for a longer period of time, in a natural setting, and maybe give us some new information about why he can go from sitting looking out the window in the back seat of the car to banging his head and crying and grabbing and screaming. Charlie has a little language, but not enough to tell him how he feels when such “episodes” happen; we’ve been able to figure some things out using behavioral methods, but there’s still lots of questions. New technologies really do have the potential to make real differences in our heath and our lives.
The study is published in the August 12 issue of the journal Science.
Photo by Creativity 103