MIT’s Color-Changing Tattoo Tracks Your Health in Real Time

With an incredible new project that blends biotechnology and body art, researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School have developed a tattoo ink that changes color to provide real-time updates on the body’s health.

The project, called DermalAbyss, is a collaboration between MIT researchers Katia Vega, Xin Liu, Viirj Kan and Nick Barry, and Harvard Medical School researchers Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang. The group developed an ink that responds to chemical changes in the interstitial fluid – the liquid in which our cells are suspended – therefore providing a unique way to monitor shifts in biochemical information including blood glucose, sodium and pH levels.

For example, when blood sugar rises, the glucose sensing ink in a DermalAbyss tattoo changes from blue to brown. A sodium sensing ink changes to a more vibrant green under UV light, when a person’s salt levels rise. And a pH sensing ink changes from purple to pink, depending on alkalinity.

Possible Applications

For one, the futuristic concept provides exciting possibilities for diabetics worldwide. With current technology, diabetics need to monitor their glucose levels by piercing the skin between 3 and 10 times per day. In a future with DermalAbyss technology, a tattoo could replace this painful and time consuming procedure. By watching the color of her/his tattoo shift between purple and pink, the wearer could monitor the need to administer insulin.

DermalAbyss could help improve the lives of millions, given that 10% of the population of the United States alone suffers from diabetes. Apart from the initial tattoo application, a DermalAbyss tattoo is a far less invasive and less expensive self-monitoring method. It’s also far harder to damage than current wearable technology. And it has definitely got people talking, according to Xin Liu, who told CBS News: “People with diabetes email us and say, ‘I want to try it out.'”

PH Sensing, Low Value

PH Sensing, High Value

Too Good To Be True?

Unfortunately, the project is purely a proof-of-concept at this point in time, and is still in the very early stages of research. So far it’s only been tested on pig skin samples and is yet to be tested on live animals, let alone humans. This leaves a lot of unknowns, including questions surrounding allergies, accuracy and durability. Still, the technology sheds light on new and wonderful possibilities. The researchers behind the project believe that it could potentially be used to measure far more than just blood glucose, pH and sodium levels.

“It could be used for applications in [continuous] monitoring, such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body.” – DermalAbyss website.

Watch a clip on the project, published by MIT Media Lab, below.


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