Ultra-thin electronic patch offers accurate monitoring of patients’ health

When it comes to technological devices, thinner is better. The once clunky flip phones have evolved to the ultra-thin smartphones that are commonalities in the market today. With each release of a newer model of a smartphone also marks the thinning of the device. It is understandable to see why a slimmer model would appeal to the consumer; it compacts the remarkable functionality of the phone into a space-efficient and lighter object.

Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created an electronic patch that is placed on the surface of the skin and can monitor several aspects of an individual’s health, such as temperature, hydration state, and heart rate. Additionally, the patch can be specialized to monitor more particular features of the body, such as brain waves and muscle movement. It gathers, stores, and transmits data on a 24/7 basis, allowing doctors to monitor the patient without having to be physically present by the patient to perform checkups.

And, by the way, this electronic patch is thinner than a human hair.

Under the skin

The two-inch patch is situated on water-soluble plastic and placed on the skin by rubbing water on it, as you would do when applying a temporary tattoo. Once on the skin, it is virtually unnoticeable as the soft and flexible patch quickly molds to the shape of the skin’s surface. The pliable patch actually contains fluid in which the wires and chips are suspended, which allows the device to operate even when the patch is stretched, bended, or wrinkled. In fact, the patch is so in sync with the skin that University of Illinois materials science professor John A. Rogers stated, "The goal was really to blur the distinction between electronics and biological tissues.” (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/skin-electronic-patch/)

Deeper into the skin

Researchers have conducted numerous tests to assess the precision of the patch. Traditional methods of assessing electrical activity in the body include electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG). Both methods involve attaching cumbersome electrodes and wires to areas of the body, oftentimes intrusively with a needle, to obtain data regarding the body’s functionalities. On the other hand, external devices in the form of wristbands are oftentimes inaccurate at obtaining data regarding the patient. Yet the newly developed patch has been discovered to be as accurate and precise as the EEG and EMG in recording heartbeats or measuring brain activity without being intrusive. The functionality of the patch coupled with its unobtrusiveness allows the patients to comfortably wear it for long periods of time without having to make major adjustments to their daily routines.

The researchers tested the accuracy of the patch in measuring a subject’s temperature by comparing the results obtained from the patch to that of an infrared camera. Microscale temperature sensors are arrayed on the device and were able to measure temperature to the millikelvin precision, which was virtually identical to the measurements obtained from the infrared cameras.

The patch can obtain certain information regarding the patient by delivering stimulus in the form of heat into the skin area. The same sensors are also able to act as micro-heaters and send heat the area, which will allow the researchers to measure the amount of perspiration generated and deduce the patient’s hydration levels. In the future, researchers hope that instead of delivering stimulus in the form of heat, they can create a circuit that would allow the patch to deliver medications in the form of micronutrients to the patient.

In the future

This ultra-thin electronic patch is evidence of the potentiality of telemedicine. Patients with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, and cardiovascular diseases, will no longer have to make habitual trips to the doctor’s office and can instead rest assured that their condition is being monitored. Additionally, the patch can be applied neonatal health by providing a gentle yet accurate method of measuring the conditions of premature babies. In the future, the researchers hope to also integrate Bluetooth-style radio communication and Wi-Fi into their patches. Researchers also hope to develop certain capabilities in the patch such that, when placed on the skin of the throat, will detect muscle movements of the larynx of patients with muscular or neurological disorders who are otherwise unable to orally communicate.

Obviously, advances in biotechnology are quickly changing the scene of medicine. Devices such as this ultra-thin patch offer life-saving monitoring systems without affecting the quality of both the patients and doctors’ lives. How exciting is it to see how the role of telemedicine will become ever more prevalent in our society in the future!