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Electronic tattoos could combat America’s leading cause of death

03 May 2023

Researchers suggest that a mobile e-tattoo could prevent 80 percent of heart disease.

Image: University of Texas at Austin
Image: University of Texas at Austin

According to a new study, a flexible, wearable electronic tattoo could provide a major boost in the fight against heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US.

Researchers developed an ultrathin, lightweight electronic tattoo, or e-tattoo, that attaches to the chest for continuous, mobile heart monitoring outside of a clinical setting. It includes two sensors that together provide a clear picture of heart health, giving clinicians a better chance to catch red flags for heart disease early.

“Most heart conditions are not very obvious. The damage is being done in the background and we don’t even know it,” says Nanshu Lu, a Professor in the aerospace and engineering mechanics department at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study in Advanced Electronic Materials.

“If we can have continuous, mobile monitoring at home, then we can do early diagnosis and treatment, and if that can be done, 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented.”

As a continuation of an earlier chest e-tattoo project, this new version is wireless and mobile, which is enabled by a series of small active circuits and sensors carefully arranged and linked by stretchable interconnections and conforms to the chest via a medical dressing. 

The clear devices are far less intrusive than other monitoring systems and more comfortable for patients.

Currently, there isn’t a ready solution for long-term, comfortable monitoring outside of the clinical setting. Clinicians can run tests on patients when they visit, but they may not catch some heart issues because signs of disease are not present at that moment.

The e-tattoo weighs only 2.5g and runs on a battery the size of a penny. The battery has a life of more than 40 hours and can easily be changed by the user.

It provides two key heart measurements. The electrocardiogram, or ECG, is the electrical signal from the heart. And the seismocardiogram, or SCG, is the acoustic signal from the heart that comes from the heart valves.

ECG can be measured by mobile devices such as an Apple Watch. And the SCG can be monitored via a stethoscope. But there is no mobile solution that approximates a stethoscope or takes both measurements.

“Those two measurements, electrical and mechanical, together can provide a much more comprehensive and complete picture of what’s happening with the heart,” Lu says. 

“There are many more heart characteristics that could be extracted out of the two synchronously measured signals in a noninvasive manner.”

Monitoring those two factors, and synchronising them, makes it possible to measure cardiac time intervals, which are a major indicator of heart disease and other problems.

The researchers have already tested the device on five healthy patients in their day-to-day environments, with a low error rate in measurements compared with currently available monitoring options. 

The next step involves further testing and validating the initial results and expanding to different types of patients.

This project rose out of a multi-university partnership of researchers, who were awarded a grant in 2021 from the National Science Foundation’s ASCENT program to study chest e-tattoo technology. Lu and her team have refined and adapted the e-tattoo technology to measure multiple parts of the body over the years, such as the palm, and different conditions, like pneumonia.

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