Can a Tiny Electronic Tattoo Measure Your Vital Signs?

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Image courtesy of John A. Rogers

Information is the currency of modern medicine. Better diagnostic tools — think everything from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to rapid genetic sequencing for new pathogens — enable better medical care.

One problem, however, is that many medical diagnostics are bulky and expensive, limiting where they can be used. (Just try taking an MRI machine out of the hospital.) If we could make sensors small enough to wear, we could better keep track of our health everywhere — not just in the hospital.

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That day might not be far away. In an article published in the August 11 Science, a team of engineers describe a new system of skin-mounted electronics small enough to fit under a temporary tattoo. The ultrathin patches — made of water-soluble plastic — are easily flexible, bending with the movement of skin. And they’re laminated onto skin with water — just as a temporary tattoo would be.

Here’s what Todd Coleman, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Illinois and one of the leaders of the Science team, had to say about the invention:

We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer. The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable.

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The skin-mounted electronics could easily be used for medical diagnostic purposes — perhaps as EEG or EMG sensors, which monitor nerve and muscle activity. Because the tattoos don’t need tape or gel or wires, they’re much less bulky and much more comfortable for patients.

That means sensor applications that might have been confined to the hospital or the lab — like EEG studies of brain activity — can move into the real world. That’s perfect for research on conditions like sleep disorders. In the future, the devices might even help patients with muscular or neurological disorders, like ALS, communicate by interfacing skin sensors with computers that could transform throat movements into electronic speech.

There’s only one downside, at least for some fundamentalist Christians. Several Christian websites have raised the possibility that the electronic tattoos could be used as the Mark of the Beast, as foretold in the Book of Revelations. But hey, nothing’s perfect.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME