Getting a new tattoo isn’t just about looking cool (or making a decision you’ll regret years later), it could also save your life. At least that’s the idea behind a new electronic tattoo capable of continuously and discreetly measuring your blood pressure.
In an article published Monday in the journal nature’s nanotechnology, a team from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University has developed a device that can attach to the skin of the wrist and be worn comfortably for up to 24 hours. It can continuously monitor blood pressure with incredible accuracy, potentially helping to diagnose problems that arise and inform treatment for patients with serious heart conditions. Researchers hope this will pave the way for a blood pressure monitor that doesn’t require a cuff like a traditional cuff.
“Blood pressure is an important measurement,” Roozbeh Jafari, a Texas A&M biomedical engineering professor and study co-author, told The Daily Beast. “It gives us a holistic view of the entire cardiovascular system. But if you want to measure it, one or a few measurements a day is not enough, and cuff-based solutions are inconvenient, uncomfortable and impractical.
In fact, when it comes to the world of blood pressure monitoring, having a cuffless device is the “holy grail,” Jafari said. This is because handcuffed devices are often uncomfortable to wear, and heart monitoring products like smartwatches also tend to move too much around the wrist to be able to provide accurate data.
That’s why the Texas team turned to graphene, a material similar to graphite pencils, to create a tattoo that can be applied directly to a person’s arteries in their wrists. Not only is it incredibly durable, but it’s also the thinnest material in the world. This makes it perfect to use in an e-tattoo as it allows the wearer to not even feel it on their skin.
It also applies exactly like a temporary tattoo: a piece of paper is placed over the spot on your wrist, which is then dabbed with a small amount of water. After a few seconds the paper is removed and voila – you have a new slick cyberpunk tattoo. Unfortunately, this is still not enough to measure your heart rate.
“We have these circuits that we need to connect to the skin to get blood pressure information,” Kaan Sel, a Texas A&M electrical and computer engineering researcher and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “The tattoo is the interface. Once the tattoos are transferred, it gives that reliable, long-lasting connection with the skin.
The circuits lead to a small electronic box that transmits the information to a computer, which uses machine learning to produce the biometric data. The whole system works by sending an electric current through the skin of your arm which allows it to detect changes in the volume of the arteries in your arm, aka changes in blood pressure.
“You have blood pumping through your arteries,” Dmitry Kireev, a bioelectronics researcher at UT Austin and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “It’s going to change the volume of the arteries and that’s what we’re picking up.”
Please note, this is only a prototype. The team hopes to further refine the system so that it can be adapted to smartwatches, to enable much more accurate blood pressure readings. This would be a huge improvement over current smartwatch technology which relies on an optical system to detect your heart rate, which is problematic for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the optical system is based on reflecting light off your skin “but that light only penetrates to a certain extent,” Sel said. Those with darker skin tones also have a notoriously harder time with these systems.
The electronic tattoo could lay the groundwork for a commercial cuffless blood pressure monitor that would allow patients to detect and send vital biometric data to their doctors without having to be tethered to a bulky machine. This data can include things like “muscle contractions, hydration, changes in tissue composition, or even respiration,” according to Sel.