The phrase “interactive tattoo” sounds like something you might hear in a sci-fi flick, but that’s exactly what a team of researchers at MIT and Harvard have created.
In a unique project that combines fashion, art, and medicine, researchers are exploring how tattoos could be used to measure things like blood sugar and sodium levels.
The project, called Dermal Abyss, comes alongside an increasing demand for wearable, biomedical technology. Scientists all over the world are searching for ways to make biosensors smaller and more sophisticated, but in all likelihood, Dermal Abyss is the first project to consider tattoos for use in diabetic maintenance.
The Dermal Abyss team has successfully created three types of ink that use biosensors to respond to changes in interstitial fluid (interstitial fluid is the goo between our cells).
The high-tech ink works sort of like the test strips you would use to measure chemicals in a pool. When tested on pigskin, the ink successfully changed color in response to changes in glucose, sodium, and pH.
The image at left shows the color spectrums for the three inks. The pH sensor shifts from purple to pink and the glucose sensor between light blue and dark brown. The sodium sensor glows bright green under UV light.
“The Dermal Abyss creates a direct access to the compartments in the body and reflects inner metabolic processes in a shape of a tattoo,” reads the team’s website. “It could be used for applications in continuous monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body.”
The glucose ink is perhaps the most promising of the three in that it could be used to make life a lot easier for diabetics who rely on pin-prick blood tests to monitor their blood sugar.
“The Dermal Abyss is a proof-of-concept that illustrates the potential of culturally and medically integrated biosensors,” explains Katia Vega, a postdoctoral associate at MIT. “The purpose of the work is to light the imagination of biotechnologists and stimulate public support for such efforts.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to see color-changing ink in tattoo shops or pharmacies any time soon – maybe not ever.
“The purpose of the work is to highlight a novel possibility for biosensors rather than bring a medical device to market,” says Vega. “There are currently no plans to develop the Dermal Abyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials.”
Other applications for bio-reactive technology include food testing and fitness monitors. A team of researchers in Spain is currently working on biosensors designed to measure neurotransmitters (like dopamine) and metabolites (like glucose and uric acid) when used directly on physiological fluids such as urine, blood, and saliva.
The company mc10 already sells temporary tattoos that gather information about the wearer’s health. The technology was developed by materials scientist John Rogers, who created tiny silica-based biosensors and fused them into tattoo-like patches. One of the company’s biggest products is a smart UV patch developed specifically for L’Oreal.
The ability to continuously monitor a person’s health outside the doctor’s office has considerable potential, but as Vega points out, the technology also raises privacy concerns.
“Can tattoos embrace technology in order to make the skin interactive? What impact might this have on our understanding of ourselves? Are we now willing to publicly display even protected health information in exchange for easier access to knowledge of our own body? Can an interface as normalized as tattoos help destigmatize disease and treatment?” asks Vega. “These questions of how technology impacts our lives must be considered as carefully as the design of the molecular sensors patients may someday carry embedded in their skin.”