Tag Archives: implantable tech

Biosensors you stick to your skin

CBS ran an interesting article about tiny biosensor patches that monitor your health while they are stuck to your arm or leg. The article referenced work done by engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. You stick the biosensor to your skin like a temporary tattoo. The work was presented in a paper hidden behind a paywall at Sciencemag.org. The abstract reads:

“When mounted on the skin, modern sensors, circuits, radios, and power supply systems have the potential to provide clinical-quality health monitoring capabilities for continuous use, beyond the confines of traditional hospital or laboratory facilities. The most well-developed component technologies are, however, broadly available only in hard, planar formats. As a result, existing options in system design are unable to effectively accommodate integration with the soft, textured, curvilinear, and time-dynamic surfaces of the skin. Here, we describe experimental and theoretical approaches for using ideas in soft microfluidics, structured adhesive surfaces, and controlled mechanical buckling to achieve ultralow modulus, highly stretchable systems that incorporate assemblies of high-modulus, rigid, state-of-the-art functional elements. The outcome is a thin, conformable device technology that can softly laminate onto the surface of the skin to enable advanced, multifunctional operation for physiological monitoring in a wireless mode.”


This biosensor can monitor your health when adhered to your body.

What was telling about the paper were all the people involved:

Sheng Xu, Yihui Zhang, Lin Jia, Kyle E. Mathewson, Kyung-In Jang, Jeonghyun Kim, Haoran Fu, Xian Huang, Pranav Chava, Renhan Wang, Sanat Bhole, Lizhe Wang, Yoon Joo Na, Yue Guan, Matthew Flavin, Zheshen Han, Yonggang Huang, and MacArthur fellow John A. Rogers.

I am not sure if that is a list of grad student slaves or distinguished professors, but the CBS article neglected to mention that some of the authors represent Tsinghua University in Beijing, Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, and Hanyang University in Seoul. This long list confirms the observation of my pal Ed Fong that system-level design requires engineers that are more social than IC designers and, I suspect, programmers. Ed has done both IC design and worked in complex electro-mechanical systems, so he should know. When you do a complex system like these biosensors it only stands to reason you would need a lot of people involved since there is so much expertise needed in so many areas.


The flexible sensor is like a temporary tattoo, it can bend and flex with your body in order to stay attached and keep working.


Here is a closeup.


And an ultra-close-up.

The new paper implements a complete system based on these biosensors. Adding a power system and a microcontroller and probably a radio is not trivial, hence the large crown of contributors. Another thing that makes me proud of the recent paper is that it has contributors from the US, China, and Korea. That is what I love about technology and engineering. While other industries and politicians give lip service to diversity, the tech industry has practiced it for decades. Here in Silicon Valley every tech company is more like the United Nations. As long as you know what you are doing, you can work anywhere you want, and that is something we all should be proud of.


Here is a biosensor as it would appear adhered to a heart.

Speaking of medical devices, my pal Ken Carroll went to work for Nanostim over 5 years ago. The idea is to make a heart pacemaker so small that you can just attach it to the heart. The wires of a pacemaker are one of the most problematic components, and they wear out and need replacement before the pacemaker battery dies.


This Nanostim pacemaker is 1/10 the size of a conventional one. It is implanted directly in the heart, needing no fragile wires to deliver the pulses to the heart.


Here is the Nanostim pacemaker in-situ.

Ken is a great IC designer, and if anyone can make a chip small enough and low-power enough, he can. I see Nanostim was acquired by St Jude’s Medical last year, so that is good news for all the people that worked for so many years to make this a reality. I have a mechanical engineer buddy that works at a laser eye surgery place, and he tells me it is really exacting work when you have to keep the FDA happy.

Going beyond wearable tech

37-year-old Amal Graafstra doesn’t use a key, fob or password to access his car, home and PC. Rather, Graafstra simply waves his hands which are implanted with a number of RFID chips.

Implantable technology proponent Amal Graafstra of Seattle demonstrates how one of the doors to his home can be unlocked by passing either of his hands past a sensor which reads the signal from an implanted RFID chip. (Courtesy of Amal Graafstra)

“In the next 10 to 20 years we will see rapid development in bioengineered and man-machine interfaces,” Graafstra told Steve Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News. “The trend is going to push the boundaries of what it means to be human.”

As Johnson reports, the current trend to outfit people with electronic devices that can be swallowed, implanted in their bodies or attached to the skin via “smart tattoos” will likely revolutionize health care and change the way individuals interact with devices and one another. 

Although critics have labeled the trend intrusive, advocates say it will ultimately help make life better for everyone. Indeed, some researchers envision a day when devices placed in people will enable them to control computers, prosthetic devices and many other items solely with their thoughts.

 Unsurprisingly, Bay Area companies have expressed significant interest in implantable tech.

This X-ray depicts the hands of Amal Graafstra, founder of Dangerous Things. He has had two radio frequency identifier inplants in his hands which he uses to unlock his car, computer and door to his Seattle home. (Courtesy of Amal Graafstra)

For example, Google’s Motorola Mobility filed a patent application in November that proposed an “electronic skin tattoo” for the throat – with a built-in microphone, battery and wireless transceiver – that would allow users to operate various devices via voice commands.

“Eventually you’ll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer,” Google CEO Larry Page was quoted as saying in 2011. 

Similar research is being conducted elsewhere, including UC Berkeley where scientists proposed implanting people’s brains with thousands of tiny sensors dubbed “neural dust” tasked with gathering detailed. Eventually, says lead researcher Dongjin Seo, the electronic swarms may be capable of controlling devices via thought or stimulating malfunctioning brain regions to restore limb motor control for paralyzed patients.

Stanford doctors have already gone a step further by implanting the brain of a Parkinson’s disease sufferer with a new device that gathers detailed data on the “neural signatures” of his illness. Ultimately, scientists hope the information can be used to create a new device to  ease Parkinson’s symptoms with electrical impulses that automatically adjust to patient activity.

The full text of Steve Johnson’s article, titled “Computerizing people may be next step in tech,” can be read on the San Jose Mercury News here.