Lick-and-stick tattoos may be coming back in fashion, but with a kick. Ink may be cool, but is it cooler than a tattoo which can measure your heart rate, temperature, electrical activity in the body and other vital signals? Sounds like it came out of a science fiction novel, but it’s actually real.
Advances in biomedical engineering and material science gave way to epidermal electronics – flexible patches with equally flexible electrical components, as thin as human hair. Researchers and inventors built the electrical components in the same manufacturing process used for making computer chips. These tiny pieces of technology can integrate energy sources and have wireless transmission. And are pretty cheap too.
Few years ago John A. Rogers, a professor of Material Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a prototype which could be as efficient as bigger, more complex medical machines like electrocardiograms. He took silicon, made it very thin and “structured into a serpentine shape”. As a result, this allowed the electronics to perfectly adhere to something as elastic as skin without braking. They could withstand stretching and compressing without a problem. The prototype had sensors which could measure heart and brain activity. The electronics don’t irritate the skin and can be put on a commercially available temporary tattoo.
This type of electronic tattoos could allow non-invasive diagnosis of certain diseases like heart arrhythmia and sleep disorders. But the most important aspect of health to which it can contribute is prevention. Good disease prevention got us to where we are today. Average human lifespan today is longer than ever in known history. Pharmaceuticals have proven to be quite effective, but why treat the consequences when you can remove the cause?
Change of thought
Major problem in most countries in the world is medical care getting more and more expensive. At certain places it has reached the level where only the wealthy can afford good medical care. Pharmaceuticals are getting more expensive too.
With these and other problems of current medical care, researchers started to think in the other direction. Instead of going to a hospital, paying a lot of cash for a generally unpleasant experience, people could check themselves in the comfort of their home. The electronic tattoo would monitor vital signals, making a data set for your doctor. With knowledge gathered from that data, you could track your health regularly, prevent disease and if there is a problem doctor would have enough information for a diagnosis.
Considering that this device is connectable to web, the question of security rises. Do you really want such information to be connected onto a network which is hackable? Innovators like Todd Coleman applied certain technologies to fix this problem. In a presentation for TED Talk, Coleman explained that instead of running the algorithms that interpret the data in the cloud, they run them on the small integrated circuits in the electric tattoo. Efficiency of this approach is yet to be seen. There are currently no commercially available electric tattoos, as they are still in the development phase. As well as advanced security systems needed for implementing this device.
Change of the medical care system this kind of device suggests is inevitable if we look at current problems. Improving home medical care and personalizing it is the next step in the evolution of our healthcare. Such an amount of data could vastly improve diagnostics and most importantly, prevention (I said it a thousand times, I know, but it is very important). Improving security of our data would allow such a change to occur. Considering the speed of our development, that moment is just around the corner.