This ‘electronic skin’ will revolutionize medicine

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 8:56am
Allegra Sparta, Contributor

It’s as thin as a temporary tattoo, but you definitely won’t get one in a cereal box. The creators of this “electronic skin” say that the technology could “one day aid patients with movement disorders or epilepsy.” It’s the first of its kind that can store information and deliver medicine through the skin, and pretty soon, our robot butlers will be sticking devices like this on us, and we won’t even bat an eye.

See: Photos of the Day: 'Electronic skin' can store and deliver medicine

This sensor is still in its beginning stages, so it doesn’t even have a name, and it definitely doesn’t have a release date yet. But if researchers can get this device out of its science-fiction phase, it can really make an impact on the world of medicine and in-home care.

The device is a bit like an electronic parfait — layers of stretchable nanomaterials in a tiny package. It consists of temperature and motion-detecting sensors, resistive RAM for data storage, microheaters, and medications.

It's pretty incredible when you understand just how much is crammed into such a tiny space. According to the study’s co-author Nanshu Lu, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas in Austin, the sticky patch is “about 4 centimeters long, 2 centimeters wide, and just .3 millimeters thick.”

Some of the technologies responsible for this device’s creation are things that we’ve already seen. We all know someone who has used a nicotine patch to quit smoking or one for birth control. But this new device is also a sensor. It doesn’t just dispense a drug dosage haphazardly until it runs out. It can be controlled through the array of complex sensors that can be programmed for a specific patient.

What has researchers and enthusiasts abuzz is the integration of the memory device. No other device of its kind is able to store data locally. Because of this, drug dispersal and individual settings can be saved so the patient can access their medical care, making the job of the caregiver much easier.

The researchers say that this electronic skin will aid those with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s, eliminating the need to unscrew pill bottles or pour liquid, but this sensor can also help people afflicted with other conditions that limit mobility or capability in general. If a device is capable of monitoring vitals and dispersing medication, it can free up a lot of time for doctors and nurses searching for a more efficient way to care for patients.

But with advancements usually come trade-offs. This device only works if it’s connected to a power supply and data transmitter. Nanshu Lu explains that components such as lithium batteries and radio-frequency identification tags can accomplish such a thing but are far too rigid for a device that is, and needs to be, as soft as skin.

Because of this roadblock, this electronic skin device is still fairly far away from being seen in your local hospital. But I like to remain optimistic. Every new advancement or device is bound to surprise some people. People exist today who remember a time without computers. If you were to describe our current tech-dominated world to them 80 years ago, they would be in disbelief.


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