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Very wearable wearables usher in new paradigm in healthcare

Wearables including temporary tattoos are contributing
to a paradigm shift in healthcare monitoring;
above, a slide from a presentation by Nanshu Lu
on graphene electronic tattoos for monitoring organ function.

Wearable devices, materials, and even temporary tattoos are entering healthcare and other markets, offering the potential for faster, more accurate, and potentially life-saving treatment.

Tracking and measuring activity in the 11 major organ systems in the human body systems is imperative for medical providers to quickly and accurately diagnose and treat patients experience trauma or other emergencies. But existing medical equipment may be uncomfortably bulky or take valuable time to set up.

Skin-like devices and other technologies can provide unobtrusive, comfortable, and precise alternatives for sensing what is happening inside the body.

In one development, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are developing a skin-like temporary tattoo that takes measurements of electrical signals from the heart, muscles, and brain (see a video presentation in the SPIE Digital Library and a report in IEEE Spectrum).

Nanshu Lu and Deji Akinwande of the University of Texas at Austin have developed a method for making graphene electrodes that may be applied to the skin, much like a temporary tattoo.

Lu and Akinwande invented epidermal electronics with John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign six years, Lu told an audience at SPIE Smart Structures and Materials and Nondestructive Evaluation in Portland, Oregon, in March.

Their process starts “by growing single-layer graphene on a sheet of copper,” Lu explained in IEEE Spectrum. The 2D carbon sheet is coated with a stretchy support polymer, and the copper is etched off.

Next, the polymer-graphene sheet is placed on temporary tattoo paper, the graphene is carved to make electrodes with stretchy spiral-shaped connections between them, and the excess graphene is removed.

The sensor is then applied by placing it on the skin and wetting the back of the paper.

“The next step is to add an antenna to the design so that signals can be beamed off the device to a phone or computer,” Akinwande said.

Lu and Akinwande will give updates on their work in featured talks at SPIE Optics and Photonics in San Diego in August.

Among other advances being reported at the meeting in San Diego by groups working in wearables for healthcare:

  • Matti Mantysalo, Tampere University of Technology, et al. will present on printed soft-electronics for remote body monitoring, including fabrication and characterization of electrode bandages and temperature sensors (10366-13). Among wearable electronics entering consumer markets over the past few years, wrist devices and textile integration are common technologies for unobtrusive measuring during sport and for well-being, they say, and disposable bandages represent a paradigm shift.

  • Raphael Pfattner and others in the research group of Zhenan Bao of Stanford University have been working with material properties for stretchable electronics for wearable devices, to overcome severe limitations that may be posed by organic materials (10365-9).

  • Benjamin Tee of the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering in Singapore will cover a variety of dramatic changes in how we interact with the digital environment, in his paper on optogenetic electronic skins (10366-16) — for example, robots can don sensor active skins to shake human hands with comfortable pressure, measure health biometrics, and possibly aid in wound healing.

  • Piero Cosseddu, Università degli Studi di Cagliari, et al. will show how organic charge-modulated field-effect transistors can be routinely fabricated on highly flexible, ultraconformable thin films and used for monitoring pH variations with a very high degree of sensitivity (10364-19). Their approach has been applied for monitoring cell metabolic activity as well as electrical activity of excitable cells.

Healing wounds, monitoring organ function, “seeing” inside the body — just a few of the ways that wearables are changing our lives.

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