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Tattoo You

Woman with Tattoo on lower back and electronic image overlay

Animated and programmable LED tattoos connected to your brain? You could show off your latest Flash animations, watch TV on your arm, or have a built-in PDA screen. The possibilities are endless. Perhaps more than simply a fashion statement, you could use such LED tattoos to display medical information about your body such as blood-sugar readings. A recent article in MIT Technology Review describes a new type of super-thin silicon transistor that can be embedded on a dissolvable silk-based film and can do all of that.

Brian Litt, associate professor of neurology and bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, is working with researchers from Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and Tufts University to develop medical applications for the new transistors. Their silk-silicon LEDs can act as photonic tattoos that can show blood-sugar readings, as well as arrays of conformable electrodes that might interface with the nervous system.

Professor Litt’s laboratory is a collaboration between Neurology, Neurosurgery, Neuroscience, and Engineering. While epilepsy is the lab’s core focus, other research includes implantable neurodevices, functional neurosurgery, network and computational neuroscience, movement disorders, intra-operative and ICU monitoring, major mental illness, and other brain network disorders.

Arrays of silk electrodes for… deep-brain stimulation… the electrodes can be wrapped around individual peripheral nerves to help control prostheses.

When the Rolling Stones released Tattoo You in 1981, they had little notion that in a few short years tattoos would become more than the mark of bikers, sailors, and criminals or a fashion statement for hardcore hipsters and flashy rock stars. Tattoos would soon become commonplace among middle-aged housewives and business executives. Today, companies no less prestigious than Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands are exploring the potential for electronic tattoos as personal body adornment and self representation. Here’s a rather sensuous video from Philips that shows the human body as a platform for electronics and interactive skin technology:

Professor Litt’s silk-based transistors promise more than just personal adornment or even medical LED tattoos. Arrays of silk electrodes for applications such as deep-brain stimulation –- used to control Parkinson’s symptoms –- can be overlaid to conform precisely to the surface of the brain’s crevice structure to reach otherwise inaccessible regions. And the electrodes can be wrapped around individual peripheral nerves to help control prostheses. So far, these flexible devices have been implanted on mice without harm (The silk degrades over time).

Silicon on Silk. Photo credit: technologyreview.comThe researchers summarized their experiments in a recent paper, “Silicon electronics on silk as a path to bioresorbable, implantable devices,” published in Applied Physics Letters. The silicon takes the form of nanomembranes built onto water soluble and biocompatible silk substrates. And while electronics must usually be encased to protect them from the body, these electronics don’t need protection. The silk allows the electronics to match the contours of biological tissue. When wetted with saline, the devices conform to tissue surface. The silicon devices are about one millimeter long and 250 nanometers thick. They are manufactured on a stamp and then transferred to the surface of a thin film of silk. The silk holds each device in place, even after the array is implanted.

Tattooing in the Western world has its origins in Polynesia –- the first recorded encounter with the Tahitian tatau occurred during the 1769 expedition of Captain James Cook, the famed British Naval explorer. The Polynesian practice quickly became popular among European sailors, before spreading more widely. Cook’s infamous first officer William Bligh led a subsequent expedition to Tahiti in 1789 in search of breadfruit. Of the 25 mutineers aboard Bligh’s boat, HMS Bounty, court records show that twenty one had tattoos from their time in Tahiti. A century later, the royal princes, Albert and George, would visit tattooists first in Japan, then Jerusalem, while serving in the Royal Navy. The staid Cook and Bligh likely disapproved of this exotic body ornamentation at the time. Nor could they — or the royalty that later adopted the fashion — possibly envision that it might one day result in photonic LED tattoos connected to the brain.


  1. I’ve been waiting for these for awhile. Read the original article in issue one of H+ and checked out the video from phillips months ago.

    Too bad you can’t see the icon of my SL character. Eventually I will have a set of these devices displaying the same tattoos as my Avatar, with the ability to change color and glow at will.

  2. Programmable tramp stamps? Do we really need those as a society?

  3. Humm. Tattoos while out on a night on the town, no tattoos while at work. health monitor display readout while jogging, cell phone keypad on demand, mood makeup, full body skintone change at whim…

    Yeah… can’t see anyone having ANY uses at all for this technology. (sarcasm font)

  4. Now when you want to get rid of your stupid ex boyfriends name on your ankle, you can just get a firmware upgrade.

  5. Minor correction, it was actually in issue #2, not the original issue.

  6. TELETUBBIES!!!!!!!!!!!1111

  7. Reminds me of this demo Human Monitor concept:, once you can get interactivity, the sky’s the limit in possibilities… txt to tattoo…

  8. Absolutely none of those things are necessary. There are too many starving people in this world to worry about silly things like this.

  9. And these fantasy medical applications prove what, exactly? We have under-used and cost-effective — but real — resources we could invest into improving people’s health already. (Just getting everyone preventative dental care so they don’t all look like rural Arizonans when they smile, for example.)

    However, it looks like we’ve already passed “peak health care.” The whole political debate about it in the U.S. shows that the supply system has broken down because it transfers too much wealth to relatively unproductive people with health problems, and it needs political rationing like food or fuel in wartime. I have relatives who’ve consumed health care resources costing more than they could have earned in their entire lifetimes, and not just my elderly and impoverished hillbilly ones from Arkansas who used Medicare for nearly three decades after they retired. A nation of Warren Buffetts could afford modern health care out of pocket; but not the nation of paupers, even “well paid” ones with negligible net worth, we happen to live in.

    I’d like to see a humane solution to this problem before we indulge in fantasies about turning ourselves into Etch A Sketches.

  10. LMFAO. you do realize these are two completely different types of research? i’m with you, yes, there are plenty of starving people in the world and it’s terrible, i want nothing more than to end world hunger.

    but please, stop bitching at human bio-engineers.

  11. That’s being addressed too. Read the article on IVM meat.

  12. As stated, those are being worked on, but to be blunt, they are not problems with technology or technological development but require political reform of the system. The political system cannot be fixed by technological innovation, but by the public demanding change.

    So rather than dismissing a technologically interesting development with commercial applications, why not go and write your congress people and demand change?

  13. Indeed it was. My bad memory. I need a BCI memory module upgrade XD

  14. What’s with the creepy sound effects? *shudders*

  15. A few too many curmudgeons here. Who cares what you think is “necessary”? The vast majority of everything we do and everything we buy isn’t necessary in a strict survival sense. Just because *you* think that your fetish for health care is the most important thing on earth doesn’t mean all human thought and resources should be dedicated toward improving it. I’m looking forward to this myself, have been for years. I’m ecstatic to see that some progress is being made outside the realm of science fiction on it.

  16. The “People don’t need healthcare!” comment:

    YOU, sir, are out of line. And also, try telling that to a person who needs a kidney but is about to die in five minutes, because his/her health insurance will not cover it, for whatever fascist greedy pig reason they have. In fact, try telling that to the person it happened to!

    You are right in that we do not need private health insurance – they charge us money when we don’t need it and they bail when we need it the most. We don’t need private health insurance or Obamacare or the lobbyists of people who will watch us die as they take more and more of our money each year.

    We need single payer. Now.

    As for the HD tattoos: It reminds me vaguely of “The Barcode Tattoo”…

  17. HOORAY no more having to wear a watch! ill get it tattood on mah wrist :)

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