Electronic tattoo monitors brain, heart and muscles—Science Nation

Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on ‘elastic electronics’ that can bend and stretch with the body to monitor brainwaves, muscle movement and heart activity.

Video source: National Science Foundation / YouTube.

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Imagine if there were electronics able to prevent brain seizures before they happened, or monitor the surface of a beating heart. Problem is, such devices are a tough fit. 

Body tissue is soft and pliable, while conventional circuits can be hard and brittle. Well, until now. We’re trying to bridge that gap from a silicon wafer type of electronics to a biological tissue-like electronics to really blur the distinction between electronics and the body.

With support from the National Science Foundation, University of Illinois’ Materials Science and Engineering Professor John Rogers is developing elastic electronics. It’s circuitry with a real twist, able to monitor and deliver electrical impulses into living tissue. Made of tiny, wavy silicon patterns, these circuits are thinner than a hair, and bend and stretch with the body.

As the skin moves and deforms, the circuit can follow those deformations in a completely non-invasive way. Rogers hopes elastic electronics will open a door to a whole range of bio-integrated medical devices, like this. It’s what he calls a sock, in this case, wrapped around a model of a rabbit heart.

It’s designed to accommodate the motion of the heart, but at the same time keep active electronics into contact with the tissues. Using animal models, Rogers has developed a version that can inject current into the heart tissue to stop arrhythmia. He also envisions an implantable circuit that diagnoses and perhaps treats seizures by injecting current into the brain. These bio-devices can also be mounted on the skin like temporary tattoos. 

They detect differences in brainwave activity each time the subject blinks. Blink. Blink. They also detect muscle movement and heart activity. Rogers says their size could really benefit premature babies.

These are such, such tiny humans that this epidermal form of electronics could really be valuable in monitoring these babies without constraining their motion or disrupting their natural, biological processes. Developing technology that’s sure to stick around. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.

The mind-bending future of flexible electronics

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