Biosensor Tattoos — Paper of the Week — July 5th

This week’s paper can be found here: The Dermal Abyss: Interfacing with the Skin by Tattooing Biosensors

I’m on Week 2 of Massive’s Storytelling 101 class, and this week was on taking the narrative style that we learned in the first week and using it on an actual paper. I chose a paper from the MIT Media Lab, which is always coming out with some odd or interesting research. The featured image on this post is a figure from the paper (all credit goes to the authors), so I’d definitely recommend checking it out. As always, feedback on my writing is always welcome!

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Do you have a tattoo? One in five Americans do, using this approach to body modification to artistically represent an emotion, a moment, a person, or anything else. Sometimes tattoos can be imprinted in a way that makes it come to life with a movement or a particular pose. At the end of the day, however, a tattoo is a static image — it only changes as it fades from the skin.

Or does it? Researchers at the MIT Media Lab created tattoos that change color based on chemical reactions with the molecules in your body. Looking specifically at glucose and sodium levels, they injected solutions called biosensors into pigskin, then took pictures of the color changes when sugar or salt solutions were applied.

To get to this point, they started with a simple observation: Changes in skin color occur due to emotional reactions, certain diseases, and nutrition. Your face might get red when you’re angry, and yellow skin is one of the key signs that your liver is not functioning correctly. We can easily see these skin changes, and they help us identify that something is wrong before it gets worse. However, not all changes in your body result in skin color changes. Diabetics have to test their blood sugar regularly to catch any worrying trends. Runners and hikers have to supplement their hydration with water and electrolyte tabs to avoid dehydration.

Vega et al. 2017

Blood sugar changes and electrolyte changes do help us identify when our bodies need help, but to see those changes, we need invasive testing procedures. Researchers in the Media Lab, who had previously worked with molecules that fluoresce at different intensities with varying concentration of a specific compound, leveraged those fluorescent molecules to create tattoo “ink” that changes colors with changes in pH, glucose concentration, and sodium concentration. They then injected the inks into pig skin and added varying amounts of glucose, sodium, acid, or base, and watched the ink colors change in response.

While you probably won’t see this ink in your average tattoo parlor, this biosensor ink is the next generation of wearable technology for medical diagnostics and monitoring. Tattooed biosensors are a low-cost, easy-to-apply approach to monitoring patients, allowing those who cannot afford or those who otherwise do not have access to monitoring systems for their chronic medical problems to take control of their health. There is work to be done in making these biosensors longer lasting and more durable, but this is certainly a step in the right direction for new healthcare technology.

Originally published at