'Electronic Tattoos' Could Monitor Pregnant Moms at Home

An ultrathin 'electronic tattoo' from University of Tokyo researchers. (Someya Laboratory)

The "electronic tattoo" may sound like an attempt by Silicon Valley to encroach on one of the last few activities still requiring an actual human being.

But what the term actually refers to is a sensor that adheres like a Band-Aid to parts of your body in order to monitor vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Another name for the devices-- equally evocative--is "smart skin."

Researchers around the country are designing electronic tattoos, which look a bit like a child's sticker but come outfitted with wireless antennae.

“The patch is a medical adhesive with an electronic sensor that can measure biological information,” says Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s not a watch. It’s something you peel and stick and mount right on your body."

This could be a boon to pregnant women forced into hospital stays due to complications, Coleman says. "In the case of a pregnant woman, she would put it right on her abdomen to track her pregnancy."

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The device moves easily when you pull or push the skin, even on curved areas like someone's stomach or an infant's forehead. The electronic patch might flash green, yellow or red to alert mothers when their signals go awry, Coleman said.

In the video below, Coleman shows how electronic tattoos can help an expectant mother track fetal development or monitor a newborn's brain function.

Engineers are also working on devices that will include a screen like those developed from University of Tokyo researchers.

"The advent of mobile phones has changed the way we communicate, said Takao Someya, a University of Tokyo researcher who worked on the device, in an April press release. "While these communication tools are getting smaller and smaller, they are still discrete devices that we have to carry with us.

"What would the world be like if we had displays that could adhere to our bodies and even show our emotions or level of stress or unease?"

Despite that potential, it's going to be awhile before electronic tattoos hit the commercial market -- the FDA will have to approve them for use. For now, in terms of pregnancy wearables, Bloom Technologies offers a silicon sensor that tracks the frequency and duration of contractions. The device is much larger than electronic tattoo prototypes, and Coleman predicts it will evolve into something much slimmer.

Bloom Technologies Belli sensor to monitor pregnancy contractions.
Bloom Technologies Belli sensor to monitor pregnancy contractions. (Bloom Technologies)

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