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Soft electronics could attach directly to internal organs

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Dr. John Rogers of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is researching what he calls "elastic electronics," which can twist and stretch to match the contours of the human body. These electronics could have widespread medical applications.

Electronic Tattoo
Electronic Tattoo

After years of research, Dr. John Rogers is making progress on electronics that he hopes can fit directly onto a brain or heart. While small electronic devices can currently monitor organ function and prevent problems like irregular heartbeats, the current generation is too inflexible to accommodate natural body movement. Rogers' elastic electronics, however, are made of silicon threads that can stretch and twist, following the contours of whatever they're attached to. One experimental device, for example, fits snugly around an animal heart, collecting information and stimulating the heart muscles with electric current like a nearly invisible pacemaker. Other circuits can be attached to the brain or skin like a temporary tattoo.

Rogers, who has previously collaborated with other scientists to make flexible electronics for devices like cameras, says he hopes his project will "bridge that gap, from silicon, wafer-based electronics to biological, 'tissue-like' electronics, to really blur the distinction between electronics and the body." That sounds almost science fictional, but it's really not a huge conceptual leap from the electrodes used today. Instead, flexible electronics would let the same technology take up less space and cause fewer complications, opening up new possibilities for its use. Premature babies, for example, could be monitored with the flexible electronics in a way that would be difficult with current, larger devices. For a full explanation of Rogers' research, check out a 2011 lecture at Yale University below.