Teeny Tattoos for Preemies

Rady Children's and UC San Diego Medical Center neonatal units are testing the wireless units

Parents of a premature baby instinctively want to cradle their child, but a tangle of wires and electrodes can make that impossible. Critically ill newborns need to be monitored with cumbersome equipment around the clock. Rady Children’s Hospital is testing a postage stamp-sized solution: a high-tech tattoo that measures brain waves in real time. The wireless patch is made up of circuits, sensors, and transmitters that stick to skin like a temporary tattoo or Band-Aid.  

"This ability to monitor brainwaves for babies exists now," says Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at UC San Diego who helped develop the technology. "But it requires technicians to scrub the skin of a baby and apply conductive gel, which can be very damaging to the baby’s skin and sometimes create infections."

Coleman is working with Dr. M. J. Harbert, who directs neonatal neurology at Rady Children’s Hospital, one of the few centers in the nation specializing in newborn brain injury. She says pre-term babies are at high risk of seizures but don’t necessarily show outward signs.

"I can’t monitor premature brains as long as I would like, because eventually their skin breaks down beneath the electrodes. To me it would be a godsend," says Harbert of the temporary tattoos.

Fast intervention lowers a baby’s chances of brain damage. Parents could hold their children more with the small-scale sensors, offering skin-to-skin touch that leads to better outcomes. Rady Children’s and UC San Diego Medical Center neonatal units are testing the wireless stick-ons alongside current EEG equipment, as part of a study funded by the Gerber Foundation. If the readings are comparable, Harbert hopes to see all their critically ill babies sporting the tattoos.—RT

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