Temporary pencil and paper tattoos work like bioelectronic medical devices


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“Beautiful ink, my brother.”

“Thanks dude.”

“What does this symbol mean?” Is it an astrological sign? “

“No brother it’s actually an electrocardiogram.


Researchers at the University of Missouri have found a way to use pencil marks on paper to make temporary electrical sensors similar to tattoos on human skin. These bioelectronic medical devices could offer various opportunities for the personalized and home healthcare sectors.

What is bioelectronic medicine?

Bioelectronic medicine uses portable medical devices to read and modulate electrical activity in a patient’s nervous system, enabling real-time diagnostics and improved treatment options. Rather than targeting cells in the body, this technique targets specific nerves by tapping into the surface of the body. The main beneficiaries are patients with circulatory or cardiovascular diseases, as well as those recovering from surgery.

Over the past two years, advances in bioelectronic medicine and several clinical trials suggest that this practice will transform healthcare systems around the world. As technology evolves, it is anticipated that it could eventually be used to treat all acute and chronic circulatory conditions.

The world’s first bioelectronic medical device was developed by researchers at Northwestern University and Washington University School of Medicine in 2018. Their wireless implantable device delivers regular electrical impulses to damaged peripheral nerves to accelerate nerve regeneration and improve neural regeneration. healing process. Tests were conducted on rats after leg surgeries, and researchers observed that the device improved recovery of strength and muscle control.

Meanwhile, the “geko,” which is the first bioelectronic device to gain clearance from the FDA and NICE, is expected to help 44 million patients worldwide. This device is worn on the patient’s knee and designed to stimulate the common peroneal nerve. This, in turn, activates the muscle pump in the calf and foot, resulting in increased blood flow to the calf to improve patient mobility.

A bioelectronic device that you can draw on your arm

There is no doubt that the advancements in bioelectronic medical devices are exciting and hold enormous potential for the future of healthcare. In most cases, however, they are also extremely expensive and complex to produce.

Devices on the skin typically consist of a tracking component and a surrounding flexible material, which is necessary for the device to maintain a connection with the patient’s body. Conductive inks and the substrates used in their design are particularly delicate and expensive to produce, relying on manufacturing facilities and materials such as copper or silicon.

Now, however, engineers at the University of Missouri have developed a new type of portable bioelectronic device that uses accessible, everyday office supplies, namely pencils and paper, to track patient health.

This tattoo-like design would make it possible to fabricate biometric devices in minutes using nothing more than a pencil-on-paper approach. In their latest study Electronics on pencil paper skin, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers explain how pencils on paper can be used to detect physiological signals such as pH levels and compounds in sweat, heart rate and skin temperature.

How it works?

Researchers have found a way to turn graphite pencil sketches on paper into electrodes capable of picking up bioelectrical signals when used on human skin. It works by:

  1. Draw geometric sketches – which look like wavy pencil lines – on regular office paper.
  2. Bonding the paper to human skin with a biocompatible spray adhesive.
  3. The graphite marks that a pencil makes on paper are conductive and transmit electrical signals to underlying organs.
  4. The sketches (electrodes) are connected to external data logging equipment using a conductive cable. The team plans to develop pencil and paper electrodes with wireless capabilities.

Why a pencil and paper?

Research has revealed that a pencil containing more than 90% graphite would conduct a large amount of energy if there is friction between it and the paper. Pencils made from 93% graphite are the most optimal. The “squiggly” nature of the designs helps maintain their electrical properties even when the skin is stretched.

Standard office paper serves as an ideal substrate for electronic circuitry – it’s inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and breaks down naturally in about a week – much like a temporary tattoo.

Pencil marks are considered thin conductive films and are stable against moisture, chemicals, and UV irradiation. Once activated, the devices can perform continuous real-time monitoring of various biochemical signals from the patient’s body, including skin temperature and respiratory rate.

Pencil applications on paper

Researchers at the University of Missouri expect their devices to have broad applications in personalized and home health care, which is particularly timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group is looking to refine and test the components, which could be used to monitor sleep levels, educate and engage students, conduct remote research and analyze the spread of disease.

In the future, it is certainly possible that patients will one day be able to track and monitor their health using pencil and paper based electrodes.

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Image Credit: University of Missouri / news.missouri.edu

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