‘Electronic tattoo’ collects physiological data for medical and commercial applications

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a wearable skin electrode that measures the activity of muscle and nerve cells, an advance with applications in medicine, rehabilitation, and marketing.

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Dubbed the ‘electronic tattoo’, the technology consists of a carbon electrode, an adhesive surface that attaches to the skin, and a nanotechnology-based conductive polymer coating that improves the electrode’s performance. In use, the device is said to record a strong, steady signal for a number of hours without irritating the skin.

The electrode, developed by Prof Yael Hanein, head of TAU’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, could improve the therapeutic restoration of damaged nerves and tissue, and has the potential to provide new insights into peoples’ emotional life by monitoring facial expressions through electric signals received from facial muscles.

“The ability to identify and map people’s emotions has many potential uses,” Prof Hanein said in a statement. “Advertisers, pollsters, media professionals, and others — all want to test people’s reactions to various products and situations. Today, with no accurate scientific tools available, they rely mostly on inevitably subjective questionnaires.

“Researchers worldwide are trying to develop methods for mapping emotions by analysing facial expressions, mostly via photos and smart software. But our skin electrode provides a more direct and convenient solution.”

The device was first developed as an alternative to electromyography, a test that assesses the health of muscles and nerve cells. It’s an uncomfortable medical procedure that requires patients to lie sedentary in the lab for hours on end. 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 surface electrodes.

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

According to Prof Hanein, the new skin electrode has other important therapeutic applications. The tattoo will be used to monitor the muscle activity of patients with neurodegenerative diseases in a study at Tel Aviv Medical Center.

“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,” said Prof Hanein.

The electrode is the product of a European Research Council (ERC) project and received support from the BSMT Consortium of Israel’s Ministry of Economy.

Prof Hanein’s research has been published in Scientific Reports and presented at an international nanomedicine symposium held at TAU.