Our species has a long and peculiar history of body modification. Whether it’s for ritualistic reasons, cultural preferences, or just plain personal taste, many of us look at the human body as not just a marvel of biological engineering, but also a blank canvass just begging for some creative tweaking. A quick Google search of “body modification” will fill your eyes with sights both fascinating and stomach-churning, but what if one of the oldest forms of body-modding — the tattoo — could be used not just to add some flair to your epidermis, but to help treat medical conditions? That’s the very real possibility being explored by scientists working to create “elastic electronics.”
The website of the National Science Foundation has a detailed rundown of the technology, but we’ll try to cover the basics for you here. The technology is the brainchild of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign materials scientist John Rogers, working in conjunction with the NSF. The elastic electronics are made up of tiny silicon structures filled with circuits that are thinner than a human hair. Their construction allows them to bend and flex, so they can be mounted on human skin comfortably, and to “monitor and deliver electrical impulses into living tissue.” As Rogers explains, “We’re trying to bridge that gap, from silicon, wafer-based electronics to biological, ’tissue-like’ electronics, to really blur the distinction between electronics and the body.”
These “electronic tattoos” could lend themselves to all sorts of handy medical uses. For instance, you could actually wrap a patient’s heart in the material. Since it’s flexible enough to remain flush with whatever tissue is below it, it could monitor the heart’s function closely without interfering. Or it could deliver current into the heart to help with cases of arrhythmia, where the heartbeat is irregular due to abnormal electrical activity within the organ. If implanted on the brain, it could use that same concept to deliver current into the brain and prevent seizures.
Prototypes of the tech are currently being tested in a “temporary tattoo” form. Early results show the devices are able to monitor muscle movement, heart activity, and brain waves nearly as well as traditional monitoring equipment.