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Forget smartwatches: This tattoo could soon track your health

Harvard and MIT researchers teamed to create color-changing ink that detects bodily changes.

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The DermalAbyss tattoo replaces traditional ink with biosensors that react to body changes by changing color.

Viirj Kan, Katia Vega / MIT Media Lab

Body art may be more accepted than it used to be, but there's a stigma that continues to linger. A new tattoo ink that visibly reacts to health changes in the body could change that.

Researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School have teamed up to create DermalAbyss: a project that replaces traditional tattoo ink with biosensors that respond to pH, sodium, and blood sugar levels by changing color. It's MIT's second take on smart tattoo's, after the DuoSkin concept that was making the rounds last year.

"This is the first demonstration of a tattoo-based sensor," said Harvard Medical School researcher Ali Yetisen, in an interview with CNET. "We wanted to design a system that can overcome [health] challenges with wearable systems."

A diabetic, for example, typically faces the challenge of having to test his or her blood sugar levels by pricking the skin multiple times a day. But with DermalAbyss, they'd simply need to observe their tattoo like most people normally would anyway -- a higher blood sugar level would be indicated by a color change from blue to brown.

The tattoo's capabilities don't stop there: a more common health problem, dehydration, can also be monitored through a sodium-sensing ink that works by turning a more intense green (under UV light) as salt levels increase. There's a pH sensor that also fluoresces under UV light, and a second pH sensor that detects shifts in alkaline levels by changing from purple to pink.

These biosensors proved to function successfully on sections of "ex vivo" pig skin -- yes, that means the pig is dead -- but the research team emphasized that some limitations need be fully addressed before testing out the concept on living beings, like extending the range of colors and intensities to allow for "higher-resolution" information.

"There are many steps in the development of this project," MIT researcher Katia Vega told CNET. "Next steps should be the use of [more] ex vivo experiments, then in animals, and as a last step in humans."

Though there are no current plans to develop DermalAbyss into an official product, these MIT and Harvard researches are hopeful that the project will foster public support and "light the imagination of biotechnologists."

"We envision that this technology will open new avenues in the development of real-time sensors and will go beyond wearables," Yetisen said.

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