When Is A Tattoo Not A Tattoo?

No one would want to go through an unnecessary invasive medical procedure, right?  Same thing with getting pricked by a needle, I would think.  Yes, people do voluntarily have their skin punctured to inject ink underneath its surface and create a permanent picture on their body, but at least they do that in the name of art… or love… or whatever.

Well, now it seems like medical health researchers want to turn us common folk into a gang of tattooed bikers.  Or that’s what the news headlines want you to think.  Take a look:

National Science Foundation: Electronic Tattoo – Science of Innovation

US News and World Report: Electronic Tattoos Offer Convenience to Medical Tech

Washington Post: This electronic tattoo turns your skin into a screen

Tel Aviv University: Nanotech “Tattoo” Can Map Emotions and Monitor Muscle Activity

Medical Product Manufacturing News (MPMN): This Health Tracking Tattoo Is Smartphone-Powered

Well, not quite.  What everyone’s been talking about is not so much a tattoo, and not even a temporary tattoo as some other outlets describe it (MPMN: Temporary Tattoo Detects Blood Alcohol Levels, NoCamels: Temporary Electronic Tattoo Can Read Your Emotions).  It’s more like a transparent adhesive patch with flexible electronic components embedded therein, that sticks to your skin and can monitor a variety of body parameters.

In 2011 Dr. John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revealed his revolutionary invention – a mechanically flexible silicon chip with an integrated circuit.  Rogers’ working prototype actually did stick on the skin like a children’s temporary tattoo, lasting for about a week and a half even with daily showering.

The grand vision behind the development of these “tattoos” is to eventually replace the need for some of the most expensive, bulky medical machinery, with a technology that is not only portable, but can be attached to the surface of one’s skin.  A micro-electronic health monitor of sorts.

Also called, “smart skins”, they can be a mere three micrometers thin (that’s less than a tenth of the width of a human hair), and using tiny sensors they can currently read blood oxygen levels, sun exposure, heart rate and other cardiovascular information.

The medical applications for electronic tattoos seem endless.  In November 2015, UCSD bioengineering professor Todd Coleman gave a TedMed talk titled, “A Temporary Tattoo That Brings Hospital Care To The Home” in which he outlined his vision for this emerging technology.

More recently, Professor Yael Hanein, head of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, developed an electronic tattoo that can measure the activity of muscle and nerve cells, and published her research in Scientific Reports this past June.  The device was first created as an alternative to electromyography, a test that assesses the health of muscles and nerve cells. Electromyography is an uncomfortable medical procedure that requires patients to lie sedentary for hours. Often a needle is stuck into muscle tissue to record its electrical activity, or patients are swabbed with a cold, sticky gel and attached to unwieldy surface electrodes.

According to Prof. Hanein, this tattoo “permits patients to carry on with their daily routines, while the electrode monitors their muscle and nerve activity. The idea is: stick it on and forget about it.”

Another application of this particular device is the identification and mapping of a person’s emotions (with applications in the fields of advertising, pollsters and more) as well as monitoring muscle activity of patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

“But that’s not all,” said Prof. Hanein. “The physiological data measured in specific muscles may be used in the future to indicate the alertness of drivers on the road; patients in rehabilitation following stroke or brain injury may utilize the ‘tattoo’ to improve muscle control; and amputees may employ it to move artificial limbs with remaining muscles.”

While we’re not about to do away with MRIs, EKGs and sonograms in favor of the electronic tattoo, now that Israel is on the tattoo bandwagon we can be sure that it won’t be long until the reality surpasses the vision.

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