They’ve long been seen as stylish, artistic, or cultural, but now tattoos are serving another purpose—potentially saving your life.
Researchers have created a new kind of tattoo that helps people monitor their overall health with real-time data about what’s going on inside their bodies.
A team of researchers at the MIT Media Lab, led by Katia Vega, partnered with Harvard Medical School to create a new tattoo ink that uses biosensors to track overall health to create a design instead of the typical tattoo colors.
Called DermalAbyss, the ink changes colors based on changes in the body’s interstitial fluid, which surrounds tissue cells. The ink currently uses three biosensors to read three different types of body data: a glucose sensor that changes from blue to brown as blood sugar changes, a pH sensor that moves from purple to pink as the body’s alkaline levels increase, and a sodium sensor that shows up brighter green under UV light when salt levels rise.
The idea behind DermalAbyss is that the skin can act as a new kind of interface that connects what’s going on inside the body with the skin.
“I wanted to go deeper, not just on the top of your epidermis,” Vega said. The ink creates an interactive display on the skin that allows users direct access to what is happening in their body.
Early tests of the ink have been successful on pig skin to show how changes in the body are reflected in the revolutionary tattoo ink. Much like the wearables industry is incorporating fashion and function, researchers hope to do the same thing on a healthcare and body level.
The technology is designed for people with health conditions that require constant monitoring, such as diabetes. Instead of the typical three to 10 finger pricks per day to monitor diabetes, DermalAbyss only requires the initial piercing to create the tattoo. Diabetes patients would rely on the glucose biosensor; the technology provides life-saving opportunities because being able to respond to changes in blood sugar levels quickly can make the different between a quick fix and a trip to the hospital for a diabetes patient.
The other sensors also open the door to new health possibilities. The sodium biosensor could be used to let users know when they are dehydrated or over-hydrated, which could be particularly useful for athletes or those whose water levels fluctuate.
pH levels are a good measure of overall health and can help provide people with real-time biodata while also making it easier and faster for doctors to find a diagnosis of an illness or health problem. The tattoos tap into the growing desire for people to be more aware of what is happening with their bodies and to quantify their health and fitness goals and status.
“The DermalAbyss creates a direct access to the compartments of the body and reflects inner metabolic processes in a shape of a tattoo,” researchers wrote. “It could be used for applications in continuously monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body.”
Researchers predict that the next steps will be building partnerships between biotech companies and skin companies to further develop the technology.
These new tattoos expand the healthcare possibilities into something entirely new. Instead of finding test results in the dark lab of the health clinic, patients can now have instant access to how their bodies are performing, which is empowering to people and could potentially save lives with faster response times.