August 11th, 2011
02:00 PM ET
Hospital monitoring devices are clunky and uncomfortable, with all of their wires and plugs like you'd see with any old machine. Heart disease patients sometimes have to wear monitors for a month or more. But now, a group of researchers is making health care electronics look and feel more like part of your own body.
A study in the journal Science demonstrates an extremely thin device that's like an electronic skin, which attaches to your own skin and measures vital signs. The device can check your heart rate, brain activity and muscle contractions, researchers say. Beyond that, there are many other applications, such as in physical rehabilitation and prosthetics.
"What we’ve been trying to do is to figure out how to make a class of electronics that is soft and curvilinear, stretchable and deformable like the skin, because if you could do that then you could very naturally integrate that kind of electronics with the surface of the skin," said John Rogers, co-author and professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The device stays on the skin somewhat like a temporary tattoo, researchers said. There is no sticky adhesive or pins involved; instead, the electronic skin attaches itself through weak forces of molecular attraction called van de Waals interactions. The thinness of the electronic skin helps it conform to the shape of human skin.
Because our skin continuously exfoliates skin cells, this device is known to last only about two weeks before the skin cells holding on to it slough off. After that, the wearer should be aware of possible problems with the monitoring, Rogers said.
The foundation for most electronics is the silicon wafer, a brittle and fragile material that breaks if you drop it. But Rogers and colleagues engineered the silicon membrane of the electronic skin on the nanoscale; its thinness makes it very bendable and soft.
The device's circuitry is a "spider web" of materials: narrow snake-like silicon filaments that serve as wires connected to tiny sensors designed to monitor particular bodily functions.
Beyond monitoring, the device can take the body's signals and transfer them to machines in other ways - for instance, researchers demonstrated that the muscle contractions in the neck can control the mouse in a computer game. More practically, the device could be used to apply localized electrical stimulation or temperature changes across a wound, which could be part of a "smart bandage." And it could even have uses in prosthetic devices, allowing people to better control artificial limbs as if they were their own.
Researchers have not seen any adverse effects from wearing the device; in fact, Rogers himself was wearing it when we spoke. He can't guarantee that no one would have a skin-allergic reaction to the metals used in the device, although the dominant material is silicon and that does not typically cause reactions.
The company MC10, which Rogers co-founded, will release its very first application of this product in early 2012, Rogers said, with development support from Reebok. The specific purpose of it is top-secret, but it is a "sports monitoring device related to health," Rogers said.
Dr. Bruce Dobkin, professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, is still skeptical of the device's stickiness to the skin during daily activities such as sweating and showering, but sees a lot of potential for it, especially in outpatient settings. Monitoring the effects of a drug on brain waves and looking for changes in elderly people's walking habits are just some of the possibilities.
"It’s a nice breakthrough, and I’m guessing that if it can be made to be worn on the body for days at a time, or changed each day by a person in a very simple way so that it functions reliably, I’m guessing it will find a lot of use," he said.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.