Human are closer to robots than we care to admit. Ok, so that's a completely hyperbolic statement, but — like robots — we do rely on electrical impulses to a large extent in the day-to-day operation of our bodies. Things like heart and brain function, or digestive processes, for example. Which is why electroceuticals are a pretty popular new area in the medical sciences. The term 'electroceutical' stems from the human penchant for portmanteaux and is the combination of ELECTROnic and pharmaCEUTICAL; essentially, electronic devices for medical applications.

Beyond just the development of the electronics themselves, there are many challenges inherent in developing devices for use in and on the human body including biocompatability, biodegradability, and flexibility. Anyone who has ever made an electronic device and then crumpled it up and dunked it in a glass of water (if you haven't ever made an electronic device, feel free to test this with your tablet or cellphone) and then expected it to work knows that these are not trivial things. Such hurdles are often best addressed by materials scientists, who generally have an intimate knowledge of material properties and interfaces. A recent paper in the journal Advanced Materials is a great example.

Researchers in Italy and Sweden developed a device which is flexible, transparent, biodegradable, and can take electrocardiographic (ECG) readings. For the substrate, they chose poly(lactic-co-glycolic) acid, a biocompatible and biodegradable polymer that is already regularly used in FDA-approved therapeutics. This was then patterned with an electronic material, the conductive organic polymers PEDOT:PSS. If you've been following my other writings, you will be interested to know these same polymers are used both in organic solar cells and to coat the exterior of the artificial microfish. When something works it works.

The results were impressive. The device, which was about one fifth the thickness of a coat of paint, was able to conform well to uneven areas of body without experiencing a major drop in performance. Meanwhile, the signal-to-noise ratio observed in their electrocardiograms was on par with what is achieved using traditional electrodes.

ECGs are already pretty standard practice, not to mention one of the least unpleasant medical tests, so maybe this doesn't seem like an enormous breakthrough. But, given the number of maladies related to interruptions of the body's electronic signalling — from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson's disease — this sort of fundamental research into the materials and fabrication procedures for next-generation electroceuticals will likely prove invaluable.

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The original paper, with the mouthful-of-a-title "Electrocardiographic Recording with Conformable Organic Electrochemical Transistor Fabricated on Resorbable Bioscaffold", is a very readable four pages and can be found here.