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In the near future, it is very likely that hospital patients will no longer be tethered to wires and monitors thanks to the emergence of temporary electronic tattoos that can be used to monitor a patient’s vital signs.
Medical “tattoo” is an epidermal electronic patch that can be temporarily tattooed on a patient’s body. This innovative biomedical device was created by Dr. John Rogers and a team of researchers from the University of Illinois, and is a significant breakthrough in human-computer interfaces. By using the patch, doctors can monitor their patients’ vital signs without the need for invasive procedures.
The patch consists of a thin layer of peelable electronics, designed to detect and record a series of signals to directly check the health of a patient’s brain, heart and muscles. The electronic skin patch is thinner than human hair and covered with water-soluble plastic. It can be transferred to the skin, the same way a temporary tattoo transfer would be applied, with the backing peeled off before brushing on with water and sticking on.
The patch adheres to the skin thanks to the forces of attraction between the molecules. Dr. Rogers and his team used brittle silicon to create wires a few billionths of a meter thick. The silicon threads give the patch flexibility similar to skin, allowing people to stretch and bend, with no noticeable difference.
The electronic epidermal patch was further improved by the research team to be able to measure muscle activity, as well as stimulate particular muscles that could be used for patient rehabilitation.
During the study, the patch was worn for up to 24 hours and there were no signs of disruption or loss of function or skin irritation. The main disadvantage of this new technology is that it cannot be used in the long term because the skin constantly produces new cells, which leads to the death of the cells on the surface, which forces the patch to be replaced at least every fifteen days.
Benefits of technology
Dr. Rogers’ innovative biomedical technology will allow hospitals to eliminate the need for bulky devices to monitor their patients’ vital signs. With the emergence of this technology, a hospital room no longer needs to be cluttered with a mass of wires, monitors and adhesive gel coated pads.
The patch is easy to attach to the skin and remove, while being flexible enough not to impede patient movement yet strong enough not to break. The patch’s wireless capabilities allow data to be transmitted to the patient’s mobile phone and to the doctor’s office. The patch will make monitoring medical conditions more reliable, simpler and uninterrupted.
Electrical engineer Todd Coleman of the University of California tested his version of electronic “tattoos” that were used to study brainwave activity non-invasively and then used the collected data to control the machines. The small flexible patches were also tested on the throat to act as sub-vocal microphones through which people could communicate silently and wirelessly.
Electronic patches could be very useful in many sports performance applications, in particular they could be used to measure an athlete’s skin hydration level using solar-powered epidermal electronics. Additionally, smaller, less invasive patches could potentially be used to monitor premature babies, without the need to wear wires all night.