Scientists have developed an electronic sensor that is hypoallergenic, breathable and can be worn constantly for a week, enabling continuous, unobtrusive health monitoring.
The patch, developed by scientists at the University of Tokyo, is, according to its creators, so thin and light that the majority of users will forget they are even wearing it – a far cry from many of the weighty or uncomfortable health monitoring solutions currently available.
Designed to withstand repeated and continuous bending and stretching, the patch can be worn during a host of day-to-day activities, including sports. As a result its creators believe it could be used not only in healthcare settings, but also to monitor professional athletes.
“It will become possible to monitor patients’ vital signs without causing any stress or discomfort,” said Professor Takao Someya, from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering.
The patch, which is detailed in research published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, is a step forward due to its breathable properties, allowing it to be worn for far longer than other ultrathin patches, which are made of rubber and other similarly non-breathable materials.
It consists of an electrode made up of several nanoscale meshes, which contain a water-soluble polymer, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) and a thin layer of gold.
The patch is applied to the skin by spraying it with a thin layer of water, which dissolves the PVA and leaves the patch able to stick to the skin. It is even designed to adhere to the minute bumps in the skin, including sweat pores and the ridges that form human fingerprints, allowing a snug fit and good long-term attachment.
Currently it has been tested on 20 study participants, who wore the patch for a week. Not one experienced any inflammation, suggesting the patch should be suitable for wide-scale medical use.
It was also successfully bent and stretched over 10,000 times without damage, and was successfully used as an electrode to record electromyogram readings, which measure the electrical activity muscles, at similar levels to standard gel electrodes.
The scientists have previously developed a patch that measures blood oxygen, and decided to create this variant upon realising the significant medical need for comfortable patches that can be worn constantly for significant periods.
“We learned that devices that can be worn for a week or longer for continuous monitoring were needed for practical use in medical and sports applications,” said Someya.
While the headline use for the patch will undoubtedly be in medical settings, it is also likely to attract considerable interest in the world of professional sports, where monitoring athletes is becoming increasingly commonplace.
At present, most of the wearables used to monitor athletes are housed in plastic units that are temporarily attached to the skin using harnesses or pockets in sports equipment, however such a patch could enable a less obtrusive approach to monitoring.