Harvard/MIT researchers develop tattoo ink that monitors health

Harvard and MIT researchers have developed smart tattoo ink capable of monitoring health through biomarkers such as hydration or blood sugar levels.

The project, called “Dermal Abyss,” was created by two postdoctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School and colleagues led by Katia Vega at MIT’s Media Lab.

Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang of Harvard collaborated with MIT researchers to develop the biosensitive tattoo ink, which unlike current wearable monitoring devices, doesn’t require batteries or wireless connectivity.

The inks, which were tested in pig skin, change color according to the chemistry of the body’s interstitial fluid. Inks developed thus far include one that changes from green to brown as glucose concentration increases; a green ink, visible under UV light, that grows more intense as sodium concentration rises, an indication of dehydration; and ink that changes from pink to purple in relation to pH levels.

“We were thinking: New technologies, what is the next generation after wearables?” Yetisen is quoted as saying. “And so we came up with the idea that we could incorporate biosensors in the skin.”

A drawback of current wearable monitoring devices is that they don’t seamlessly integrate with the body, Yetisen said. Short battery life and the need for wireless connectivity are limiting factors. Neither of these is an issue with biosensitive tattoo ink.

“We wanted to go beyond what is available through wearables today,” Yetisen said.

Further refinements, including stabilizing the ink so designs don’t fade or diffuse into surrounding tissue, are needed before there would be a viable medical product. But Jiang and Yetisen believe that once the bugs are worked out, the applications for biosensitive ink are fairly broad.

These include long-lasting tattoos for chronic conditions, and temporary designs for shorter-duration monitoring.  Futhermore, the ink can be visible only in particular light, Yetisen said.

Meanwhile, the implications of having one’s wellness markers monitored in tattoo form is intriguing for those of us who can never find our FitBit chargers (now where did I put that thing???).

Spa Executive magazine is published by Book4Time, the world’s most innovative spa, salon, wellness, and activity management software. Learn more at Book4Time.com

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