Science, Now + Beyond

Scientists could start getting data from your tattoos

Tattoos could start having medical and psychological uses very soon with nanotechnology

Many people have stereotypes against tattoos as unprofessional or tacky. But if tattoos changed to have a real, scientific purpose, would the negative opinion around tattoos vanish? It seems like a question for a science fiction, futuristic world, but with recent innovations the possibility may not be so distant.

Researchers at the Tel Aviv University have integrated nanotechnology into tattoos, constructing a small two part circuit out of a carbon electrode, and specially coated wires that transmit electrical impulses from the skin into the electrode. The wires are held in place with an adhesive, and specifically covered with polymer that won’t irritate the skin.

The discovery is important because it is projected to have a number of very meaningful impacts, from medical to commercial.

The origin of the device, and one of the most important projected medical uses of such a tattoo would be monitoring the muscle activity of patients with neurodegenerative diseases. Since the tattoo is able to sense and measure the amount of energy that the muscle cells give off, it is a simpler way to measure the health of muscles. The previous method of carrying out these tests was called electromyography, and was much more invasive and uncomfortable for patients.

The electrode was originally developed for therapeutic purposes, and although the original source does not elaborate how, it is hoped that the product will be able to not only monitor the activity of muscles, but also help to aid with control and restore some of the function of those muscles.

Scientists have also suggested another important use for the new technology based on its ability to monitor energy levels: it could serve as a monitor to let people know when they are sleepy. Which doesn’t sound like a particularly important task, but it takes on a greater significance when considered in the context of driving and sleep-related accidents.

The technology would also be revolutionary in the field of psychology, specifically in the field of monitoring emotions. For years, psychology has relied on subjective tests and questionnaires to try to measure feelings in research subjects. If nanotransmitters could provide a more concrete way to measure facial expressions, including microexpressions, it would completely revolutionize the way that psychologists can study emotion.

Psychologists aren’t the only ones who would find this technology useful, though. Advertisers, media producers, politicians, and many others would probably find this information invaluable. The thought of powerful outside players having access to such data is somewhat frightening, and may bring up a whole new area of technological ethics.

Previous medical research into the possibilities of tattoos occurred in 2010, and again in 2015, and centered around the diabetic population. In 2010 scientists at MIT and Draper Labs developed two different methods for creating a high-tech ink that would change colors based on the glucose levels in the blood. Unlike the tattoo mentioned above, this kind of tattoo would require another device to read it.

Scientists at the University of California in San Diego developed another method to check blood sugar levels using a tattoo, but in this case it was a temporary one. The scientist printed an ink made of silver and silver chloride onto tattoo paper, and then applied to as a tattoo. By running electricity over the area of the tattoo they could investigate the glucose levels in the blood. Like the nanotattoo sensors, one of the goals of these tattoos was to make a standard medical test less- invasive. Normally, checking glucose levels in the blood involves drawing a tiny amount of blood, an invasive and often painful process.

Let’s hope that these new technologies help make our medical procedures less painful and more accurate.

  • Grace Ballenger

    Grace Ballenger is currently pursuing a BA at Wellesley College where she studies English and Spanish. One of her (too many) goals this summer is to make the list of musicals she wants to listen to shorter.