By: Jamie Hartford
A flexible, skin-like device can acquire electrical signals from the brain and skeletal muscles and potentially transmit the data it collects wirelessly.
It’s a doctor’s dream to be able to monitor patients as they go about their daily lives. That dream could someday become reality, thanks to a breakthrough in wearable electronics.
A research team led by University of Illinois materials science engineering professor John Rogers; University of California, San Diego, bioengineering professor Todd Coleman; and Northwestern University mechanical engineering professor Yonggang Huang has developed a thin, flexible device mounted with tiny electronic components.
It can acquire electrical signals from the brain and skeletal muscles and potentially transmit the data it collects wirelessly. Best of all, it doesn’t impede the wearer’s ability to function normally.
While traditional medical monitoring methods, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG), require patients to be tethered to bulky equipment, this device is applied like a temporary tattoo.
“It’s so remarkably small that it’s almost unnoticeable when it’s connected to you,” Coleman says.
The device can sense temperature, heartbeats, brainwaves, and nerve-conduction signals, as well as power a light-emitting diode. To demonstrate its capabilities, the researchers used it to control a video game. The device was applied to users’ necks, and when they spoke different phonemes, sensors picked up nerve conduction in their muscles. The team developed pattern-matching algorithms that could convert the signals into commands with better than 90% accuracy.
Besides monitoring applications, the device could also be used to help patients with a disability, Coleman says. For example, people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, don’t have the ability to push air through their windpipes, which affects their ability to speak. But because the nerve connections in their throats still function as normal, the new device could be used to allow them to speak artificially.
Parts of the device have been demonstrated individually, but they’ve not yet been connected together. That’s the next step, Coleman says.