Science

Scientists make smart 'tattoos' to store data & deliver meds

Electronic tattoo, now with memory

Above: Electronic tattoo, now with memory

Wearables are not going to be just clunky watches or nerdy glasses. Researchers announced this weekend they have created a wearable device as thin as a temporary tattoo — essentially, a wearable skin — that can store data and deliver drugs.

While this is not the first such experiment to develop an electronic skin, it is the first with storage and medicine capabilities. The research, conducted by scientists from the Institute for Basic Science and Seoul National University in South Korea and the University of Texas in Austin, is reported in Nature Nanotechnology.

Also listed as part of the research team is MC10, Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that, according to its website, makes “thin, flexible devices that can stretch, bend and twist seamlessly with our bodies and the nature world.”

The patch the team developed is about four centimeters long, two centimeters wide and 0.003 millimeters thick.

A skin-like polymer material was layered with stretchable, motion and temperature sensors, resistive RAM, microheaters and drugs to be delivered through the skin. One possible use case is on-the-spot delivery of medicine in response to muscle movement, such as for epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

The new electronic skin does not include battery or transmitter, as both still need to be made skin-like. Some candidates, such as lithium batteries or RFID tags, are not yet flexible enough.

If power and transmission issues can be solved, electronic skin could be the end-game for wearables — at least until technology embedded or genetically encoded in the body makes a serious entrance.

This latest step toward a category of skin-based devices follows the publication last November of patent application by Motorola Mobility, then owned by Google, for a temporary “electronic skin tattoo capable of being applied to a throat region of a body.”

In Motorola’s vision, the skin tattoo can talk to larger devices like smartphones or Google Glass through Bluetooth, and, at least in the application, includes a mike and a power source. Oh, yes, and it can function as a lie detector, measuring galvanic skin response.

In 2011, a research team a the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign announced development of a skin-like, flexible lattice that could be applied or removed as if it were a temporary tattoo, without any kind of adhesive. It is able to record a beating heart, brain activity and muscle contractions, and can be powered inductively through a wireless power supply.

MC10, one of the researchers in the latest announcement, has licensed the University of Illinois technology to develop new kinds of health care devices.

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