Engineers Develop the World's First Stretchy E-Tattoo to Monitor ECG and SCG

Developed by engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, the technology could turn the tide in the fight against heart disease.
Christopher McFadden

Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin led by Nanshu Lu, have managed to develop a wearable heart monitoring sensor from stretchy, lightweight material.

It is hoped that it can be used to help monitor heart health more accurately than traditional electrocardiograph machines. 

Their development was recently published in the journal Advanced Science.


Heart Disease is a massive killer

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the world, especially in Texas. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, it accounted for around 45,000 deaths in 2017 alone in the state.

According to the American Heart Association, in 2016, heart disease claimed over 840,000 deaths or approximately 1 in 3 of every death that year. In fact, it claims more deaths than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.

The main contributing factors that tend to increase the risk of developing a cardiovascular disease are, in no particular order:

  • Smoking;
  • Lack of physical activity;
  • Poor diet particularly high in sugar consumption;
  • Obesity;
  • Cholesterol;
  • Diabetes, and;
  • High blood pressure.

What does the e-tattoo do?

The new graphene-based wearable e-tattoo has been designed so that it can be placed on the skin of a patient. Once in place, it will measure a variety of body responses from electrical to biomechanical signals. 

It is incredibly lightweight and is, more importantly, stretchable so that is doesn't become uncomfortable for the wearer over long periods of time. For best results, it needs to be placed directly above the heart.

It is made from a piezoelectric polymer called polyvinylidene fluoride which is capable of generating its own electric charge in response to mechanical stress. It also, interestingly enough, includes 3D digital image correlation tech that is used to find the best location on the chest to place it.

The device has been designed to allow medical professionals to measure cardiac health in two ways - electrocardiography (ECG) and seismocardiography (SCG).

What's more, it can collate this information simultaneously. 

This makes it the world's first ultrathin, stretchable tech that can do so. The entire e-tattoo is also powered wirelessly from a smartphone.

“We can get much greater insight into heart health by the synchronous collection of data from both sources,” said Nanshu Lu, an associate professor in the departments of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and Biomedical Engineering.

E-Tattoos are nothing new

Soft e-tattoos for collecting and monitoring ECG data has been around for a while now, but a stretchy SCG one is certainly an extraordinary development.

But what is particularly special about this new e-tattoo is that it can be worn for long periods of time. Previously a patient would need to visit a doctor's surgery to monitor heart health, but no more.

The constant monitoring of data, compared just a few minutes in a doctor's office, will prove invaluable to medical professionals. 

Going forward, the research team are already working on an app to help improve data collection and storage. It is also anticipated that later on an app may be developed to show the patient's heartbeat in real-time.

They are also looking to improve ways of powering the e-tattoo wirelessly for longer. 

The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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