“Electronic Skin” Tech Provides Breakthrough For Wearable, Remote Patient Monitoring

A new remote monitoring technology recently developed by healthcare researchers promises to seamlessly integrate the body with the surrounding electronic world via sensors that act as so-called “electronic skin.”

The technology, originally created to provide less obtrusive medical monitors for premature babies and other special-needs patients, has vast potential for integrating computers into the human body.  When coupled with smartphone apps, direct data connections to physicians and other digital healthcare systems, the potential to improve real-time and preventative care is extraordinary.  “This is a huge breakthrough,” says nanoengineer Michael McAlpine of Princeton University. “This goes beyond Dick Tracy calling someone with a cell phone on the wrist. It’s having the wrist itself house the device so it’s always with you.”

The primary challenge, says study coauthor John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was finding a way to match typically rigid electronic components to a patients soft, stretchy and flexible skin.  Researchers achieved this by converting brittle silicon to a more forgiving state by making it extremely thin.  The electronic components — which can include light-emitting diodes, solar cells, transistors and antennae, among other things — were all constructed in a malleable net of wavy S-shapes similar to old-fashioned coiled telephone cords, which allows the circuits to work when stretched in any direction.

Researchers then sandwiched these components between two protective layers of polyimide, a type of polymer, which sit on top of a rubbery silicone film that adheres to skin with weak chemical bonds.  The device can also be applied in a temporary tattoo, which both disguises the grid and makes it stick longer.  The superthin electronic skin wrinkles, puckers and stretches just like the body’s skin, making it less intrusive than the bulky wires and cumbersome electrodes typically used to monitor vital signs.  The team is focused on medical applications for the electronic skin technology, but the foundation of the system can be configured in many ways for widely different uses, they say.

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