An electronic device consisting of tiny, snake-like filaments and circuitry that can be applied to the throat, forehead or chest to monitor the body’s electrical activities is redefining how scientists measure the functions of living systems.
A team of researchers led by John A. Rogers, Professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois, released their findings in an Aug. 11 report on the class of technology they call the epidermal electronic system (EES).
The findings were published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the journal Science.
“Our thought was that if you could convert the electronics from the rigid, boxy form that it exists today, into a format that looks like the skin in terms of mechanical properties, shape, stretch ability, toughness, then you could almost make like a second skin that would laminate on the surface of the biological skin in a completely seamless, integrated fashion that would be essentially invisible to the user but able to deliver all of its new functionality through the skin,” Rogers shared with Big 3 News.
The EES’ key capability is monitoring the activity of the brain, heart and muscle tissue. A device is applied to the skin without the need for adhesives, straps or penetrating pins which is common with traditional device technologies.
The researchers believe the current monitoring systems, while possessing useful capabilities, are impractical outside of a clinical setting.
“Typically, small numbers of bulk electrodes are mounted on the skin via adhesive tapes, mechanical clamps or straps, or penetrating needles,” the research team observed of the modern systems.
“We introduce a different approach, in which the electrodes, sensors, power supply, and communication components are configured together into ultrathin, low-modulus, lightweight, stretchable ‘skin-like’ membranes,” similar to a child’s temporary tattoo.
The devices are applied to the skin with a little bit of water and — because of their conformity and elasticity — can stay adhered to the skin for as long one to two weeks. However, the natural two-week shedding cycle of the human skin poses long-term challenges that still have to be solved.
The EES can have numerous medical, health and wellness, and fitness applications.
It can be applied as a throat-mounted device to help patients who suffer from diseases of the larynx, for example, or serve as a control system for interfaces between humans and machines.
During testing of the EES mounted on the throat, researchers were able to monitor muscle activity and identify capabilities for recognizing a vocabulary of words. The researchers applied algorithms to the data gathered during the throat testing, which enabled them to control a computer strategy game called Sokoban.
“The classifications occur in less than three 3 s on a dual-core personal computer running codes in MATLAB (MathWorks, Natick, MA),” the researchers observed, “with an accuracy of >90%.”
A device on the forehead can monitor brain activity and assist with the treatment of sleep disorders. Applied to other parts of the body and the EES can be used to stimulate muscle contractions and other physical rehabilitative needs.
“Potential uses include physiological status monitoring, wound measurement/treatment, biological/chemical sensing, human-machine interfaces, covert communications, and others,” the researchers described in their report.
During their study, the researchers observed that devices worn for up to 24 hours or more on the arm, neck, forehead, cheek, and chin, were biocompatible and “showed no degradation or irritation to the skin.”
The researchers concluded that the EES offers “high-performance electronic functionality” with the surface of the skin which overcomes the limitations of conventional systems.
(Epidermal electronics pictures courtesy of John A. Rodgers, University of Illinois. Used with permission.)
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