Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) have developed an “electronic skin” device that adheres noninvasively to human skin, conforms well to contours, and provides a detailed temperature map of any surface of the body.
The array laminates without adhesives onto the surface of the skin by soft contact, much like a temporary transfer tattoo. Contact is maintained despite normal stretching or pinching of the skin. The technology offers the potential for a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities with little patient discomfort, researchers say.
Researchers tested the device and presented the results in a recent issue of Nature Materials. The study tested the array’s ability to accurately detect variations in localized skin temperature when compared to an infrared camera. Subjects wore the device on the palm and also had heat measurements obtained with an infrared camera placed 16 inches above the same region.
The results showed that the profiles of temperature changes were virtually identical with the two methods, according to researchers.
The investigators also measured blood flow changes, which can be detected by changes in skin temperature as blood moves through the forearm. The infrared camera and the array technology showed virtually identical temperature change profiles, according to the study.
The final experiment addressed a feature unique to the skin array technology: delivery of a stimulus, such as heat. The researchers sent precise pulses of heat to the skin to measure skin perspiration, which indicates a person’s overall hydration.
The ability to sense and deliver a wide range of stimuli makes the system useful for diagnostic, therapeutic and experimental purposes, researchers say. “Precision thermometry of the skin can, together with other measurements, provide clinically relevant information about cardiovascular health, cognitive state, malignancy and many other important aspects of human physiology,” the authors write.
While the current version measures only temperature and delivers heat to the skin, future versions of the device could include sensors to detect glucose levels, blood oxygen content, blood cell counts, or levels of a circulating medication, according to researchers.
Also, instead of delivering heat, an element could be included in the circuit that delivers a medication, an essential micro-nutrient, or various stimuli to promote rapid wound healing.
The array could also be equipped with a wireless power coil and an antenna for remote data transfer, allowing patient data to be delivered to physicians remotely via a cell phone.
“We are very excited about the unique potential of this technology to vastly improve healthcare at multiple levels,” says Alexander Gorbach, PhD, one of the co-investigators from NIBIB, and head of the Infrared Imaging and Thermometry Unit.
“Continuous monitoring outside of a hospital setting will be more convenient and cost-effective for patients. Additionally, access to data collected over extended periods, while a patient is going about a normal routine, should improve the practice of medicine by enabling physicians to adjust a treatment regimen 24/7 as needed.”