The synergy between life-science and electrical engineering has led to several viable technologies and start-ups in the health sector. Pure science R&D is continually adapting to cater to doctors and bio-engineers. Fitness wearable gear is a step in that direction! New instruments & hardware are being designed and prototyped to simulate brain functions and neural pathways. Neuroscientists and computer engineers have worked extensively to detect, diagnose and rectify brain related disorders such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia, etc. Now we need to turn our attention to something much less explored – women’s reproductive health. Here’s where the bioelectronic tattoo fits well.

A late night surfing brought up Todd Coleman’s  Ted Talk about his bioelectronic tattoo. Dr. Todd Colemann is a professor and faculty of bioengineering in Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego. From the very beginning, Dr. Colemann’s research has always been multidisciplinary. He combines tools from neuroscience, machine learning and bioelectronics in an attempt to comprehend the human body. He is devoted to developing multi-functional, wireless, flexible bio-electronics for health applications.

bioelectronic tattoo
A bioelectronic tattoo embedded in human skin

In his quest for non-invasive health applications, Colemann came up with the bioelectronic tattoo – a flexible, wearable “patch” or tattoo that substitutes expensive hospital care. This kind of a system is especially useful for people who would require constant monitoring for a period of time such as pregnant women. Dr. Colemann and his team built this patch with semi-conductor material that’s friendly to the human body and transmits wireless data. These circuits are integrated into adhesives which makes them about 1mm thick – ideal for body incorporation. These “tattoos” are a welcome change from conventional, cumbersome and expensive existing technology that are used to monitor patients.

This research is ground-breaking especially for its benefit towards women of developing and under-developed socio-economic backgrounds. Many lives can be saved with this innovation. Colemann and his team have taken into consideration several factors that play a role here. For instance, an expecting mother’s cultural history, economic status, genetic tendencies, and even the debatable hospital experience crucial to a safe delivery. What is truly commendable is that Dr. Colemann has even considered the risk of data privacy. So his team proceeded to develop these tattoos in such a way that the data can be processed in the circuit, rather than being transmitted to the cloud. This takes care of the patient’s privacy as well as reduces the chance of enormous phone bills!

Bioelectronic tattoo is a new concept and obviously a work in progress. Hopefully in the near future, this invention becomes a household name just like FitBit! Please watch the Ted Talk video to know more about bioelectronic tattoos.

Dr. Colemann has also designed the Brain Machine Interface – a similar non-invasive bioeletronic device designed to monitor neural signals.

Dr. Nanshu Lu of Aerospace Engineering, University of Texas, has worked on stretchable bioelectronics as well. She termed her research as Smart Tattoos. You can find more about her work here.

The microfluid skin “patch” also deserves a mention. This wearable flexible sweat sensor is developed by Dr. John Rogers, a material scientist at the University of Illionis, Urbana-Champaign.  The sweat sensor has garnered attention for being touted as the “bloodless” way of detecting diabetes; simply by analyzing the patient’s sweat!