How a Tattoo Can Tell You More About Your Health

The Latest on Tattoo Wearables and Digital Health

Tech Tats
The research team at Chaotic Moon Studios has been working on “biowearables” called Tech Tats that use conductive paint to create circuitry. YouTube

Although you generally do not think of tattoos and digital health in the same thought, high-tech wearable tattoos are a new, budding medical technology. These devices’ ability to be so close to the skin give them the potential to provide more accurate information when compared to more traditional wearable devices (e.g. bracelets). Also, tattoos are arguably easier to wear than other health trackers, making it possible to collect data for uninterrupted periods of time.

Also, these devices are not surgically implanted, so they are noninvasive and can be removed easily when they are no longer required.

Tattoo-style technology has already been utilized for several years in research and diagnostic circles, but it is now also becoming commercially available—targeting both health-conscious consumers as well as people enjoying the latest fashion trends. Tattoo wearables are not only good at collecting health and medical data; this technology can provide aesthetic value as an attractive metallic compliment to the user’s other wearable accessories.

Tattoos Replacing Health Check Ups at the Clinic

Scientists are continuing to find innovative ways of exploring how to best apply smart tattoos to improve our health. The research team at Chaotic Moon Studios has been working on “biowearables” called Tech Tats that use conductive paint to create circuitry. Once these devices are applied to the body, your skin acts as an interface and the tattoo is able to interact with your body.

Tech Tats are able to collect, store, send, and receive health related data. They have been described as a slightly more protrusive tattoo than your general temporary tattoo, but most designers of these devices still attempt to have them look aesthetically appealing.

In the future, technology resembling tattoos could replace your yearly checkups at the doctor’s office.

These devices already have the capacity to monitor the common vitals that usually get checked during your routine hospital visit. For instance, they can monitor heart rate, signs of fever (letting you know if you are on the onset of getting sick), and likely in the future monitor blood glucose. Also, they can be programmed to send your vitals directly to your health provider.

Commercial digital health tattoos are expected to be affordable once they reach the mass market. However, it is not clear yet how tattoos will be received once they are directly marketed to consumers. Disposable wearable patches did not experience wide adoption at the consumer level, presumably because consumers would rather forgo uninterrupted data collection over a short period from a temporary device for the durable longevity of sporadic data collection from a more traditional wearable (that the user can wear more than a single use).

Non-Invasive Self-Monitoring of Alcohol Intake

Another useful application of wearable biosensors comes in the form of a new, convenient way of monitoring your alcohol consumption.

Engineers from the University of California, San Diego developed a skin-worn monitoring system that resembles a temporary tattoo. It measures blood alcohol levels in real time in a discrete and efficient manner.

The research group, connecting nanoengineers with electrical and computing engineers, managed to improve the already existing concept of measuring alcohol levels in perspiration. Their non-invasive system first delivers the pilocarpine drug to induce sweat. Once your body produces sweat, the device then detects ethanol in your generated body fluid. Once data is collected, it gets transmitted wirelessly via Bluetooth and you can view your results from your smartphone.

It takes only 8 minutes to receive the finding, so you can make a more informed choice about when you should stop drinking. This is a significant improvement from previously designed systems that required between 2 and 3 hours to complete the analysis of alcohol levels in sweat. This tattoo-like biosensor has already been tested on human subjects and has shown to be reliable.

Scientists have also had success designing biosensors and skin patches that can detect the levels of cortisol and glucose in sweat. Researchers from the University of Texas, Dallas developed a tiny device comprised of stacked gold/zinc oxide thin films within porous polyamide substrates that can reliably detect glucose levels in very small amounts of sweat (less than a microliter). Their invention could help improve the self-monitoring practices of those suffering from diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions.

Mapping Emotions With Temporary Tattoos

Another nanotech tattoo has been designed at the Tel Aviv University, Israel. Worn on the user’s face or hand, it can measure the activity of muscles and nerve cells. Professor Yael Hanein and his team of scientists from the School of Electrical Engineering, Tel Aviv University Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and Sagol School of Neuroscience developed it for people with neurodegenerative diseases. Stroke patients and people who have had brain injuries and amputations are among the potential users of this product.

This temporary tattoo could potentially save patients hours of lab tests and replace them with a more convenient data collection method than the traditional approach. The new method builds on the principles of electromyography. Gelled electrodes have been replaced with novel dry electrodes that are more comfortable for the patient. Carbon ink is used together with a conductive polymer coating. The plasma polymerized coating improves the electrode-skin impedance. The wearable tattoo can be worn as people go about their daily lives and can safely stay on the skin for hours.

For now, experiments have been performed on human skin using volunteers. However, in their article published in tNature’s Scientific Reports, the authors predict the use of this novel technology in many fields, including brain-machine interfacing, muscle diagnostics, post-injury rehabilitation and gaming. Among other functions, the skin electrodes can read facial expression and map the user’s emotions. This could help researchers study a person’s response to a certain situation. At the moment, facial expressions are analyzed using photos or smart software. With temporary tattoos, the approach could become more direct and possibly also more reliable.

Military and Banking Applications of Smart Tattoos

Hi-tech tattoos are also being applied in other fields. For instance, instead of carrying your wallet, you might soon be able to carry your banking data on your skin. It has been suggested that if banking data were stored on a skin-mounted micro controller, this could improve our financial interactions. Banking data could, for example, get transferred using a simple body gesture, which would replace tapping your phone on a pay terminal.

In the military, wearable tattoos that can detect poisons in the air and/or pathogens in the soldier’s body are being designed. These smart tattoos could also potentially monitor the levels of stress and signs of injury during military missions. Chaotic Moon Studios (mentioned previously) is one of the companies exploring such advanced applications of these new type of tattoos.

Sources

Bandodkar, Amay J., et al.  Tattoo-based noninvasive glucose monitoring: a proof-of-concept study. Analytical chemistry 87.1 (2014): 394-398.

Bareket L, Rand D, Inzelberg L, et al. Temporary-tattoo for long-term high fidelity biopotential recordings. Scientific Reports [serial online]. May 12, 2016.

Kim J, Jeerapan I, Imani S, Cho TN, Bandodkar A, Cinti S, Mercier P, Wang J. Noninvasive Alcohol Monitoring Using a Wearable Tattoo-Based Iontophoretic-Biosensing System. ACS Sensors, 2016; 1 (8): 1011 DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.6b00356

Munje R, Prasad S, Muthukumar S. Lancet-free and label-free diagnostics of glucose in sweat using Zinc Oxide based flexible bioelectronics. Sensors and Actuators, B: Chemical, 2017; 238: 482 DOI: 10.1016/j.snb.2016.07.088

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