Wearable and Implantable Health Devices

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Wearable and Implantable Health Devices

Timely, actionable information is invaluable in all avenues of life, but when it comes to health, it can literally be a question of life or death.  A new generation of healthcare devices is increasing our ability to monitor biometric information in real time, and with some devices, even treat physical conditions.  Some of these emerging devices are wearable and some are implantable.

One of the big challenges of merging electronic monitoring devices with the human body is that conventional electronics are rigid and brittle and don't conform to the soft, curving surfaces of human tissues.  Now, a new kind of electronics is emerging that offers the high performance of silicon wafers while being able to fit the human form.

Consider these recent developments:1

  • One example involves placing a small, flexible, stamp-on circuit on a stiff rectangle of silk.  When it comes in contact with water, it becomes flexible.  One application in the near future will be to apply it to a tooth, where it will detect dangerous bacteria in food, sending out a warning signal.  In tests, this device registered a single E. coli bacterium moving across its sensor.  It also detected ulcer-causing H. pylori that was mixed in the many molecules that make up human saliva.
  • Secondly, flat electronic devices attached to the soft, sloping surfaces of the brain have delivered useful results, but this kind of device can lead to tissue irritation and inflammation.  The solution is to instead develop devices that sink into the folds and crevices of the brain.  As with the tooth sensor application, one approach being researched is the use of flexible electronics on a thin film of silk.  While the silk is dry and rigid, it is easy to maneuver into place through a hole in the skull and onto the brain.  Once in place, it is doused with fluid, causing the sensor circuit to ease into the folds of the brain.  In tests, this closer contact with the tissue resulted in stronger signals.  It is expected that flexible devices of this nature will someday be used to control prosthetic arms, map brain activity, or quell seizures in epileptic patients.
  • In another case, ultra-thin electronics that dissolve after being implanted in the body are being built on silk films.  These extremely thin sheets of silicon are called nano-membranes.  They can dissolve in days or weeks, depending on how the silk film was formed.  In tests, these so-called "transient electronics" have included a 64-pixel digital camera, temperature sensors, and solar cells.  One promising application is for this type of device to be placed in a surgical site where it would last for up to two weeks, killing off microorganisms that would otherwise cause infections, the number one reason for patient readmission...

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