First flexible, wearable patch capable of monitoring biochemical and electric signals

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The Chem-Phys patch worn by study co-author Amay Bandodkar during a workout(Credit: UC-San Diego)

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It's not quite the tricorder from Star Trek, but researchers responsible for a new wearable patch that can monitor the body's biochemical and electrical signals at the same time say their first-of-its-kind device could be a step in that direction. The Chem-Phys patch tracks heart rate and lactate levels in real time, providing a more complete picture of a body's level of exertion than currently available fitness trackers.

The patch is a flexible suite of sensors connected to a small motherboard, all manufactured via a screen printing process on a thin polyester sheet that can be applied directly to skin. Three electrodes, one to detect lactate and two to record electrocardiogram (EKG) heart signals are printed on the surface of the patch.

Water-repelling silicone on the bottom of the patch is configured to keep sweat away from the EKG electrodes, but not the lactate sensor, while a Bluetooth Low Energy chip on the board is used to wirelessly transmit data to a mobile device or computer.

The new wearable was designed by a team at the University of California-San Diego, which believes it to be the first such wearable device to measure both heart rate and lactate, which is a biochemical indicator of physical effort or exertion.

Electrical engineering professor Patrick Mercier and nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang led the team, which hopes the patch will have applications for things like monitoring athletes and patients with heart disease. But they also see it as a real step towards something more like that classic multifunction science fiction device.

"One of the overarching goals of our research is to build a wearable tricorder-like device that can measure simultaneously a whole suite of chemical, physical and electrophysiological signals continuously throughout the day," Mercier said. "This research represents an important first step to show this may be possible."

The team is already planning improvements that would add sensors for other vital signs and chemical markers like magnesium and potassium.

The Chem-Phys patch is described in the current issue of Nature Communications.

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