The Next Generation of Biosensors Will Keep Us Honest About Our Health

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BETHESDA, MD - JANUARY 14:   Military veteran Cliff Drake is hooked up to neurofeedback electrodes / sensors at Brainsake, a brain wellness and biofeedback center in Bethesda, MD on January 14, 2015.    Drake sufffered from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression, had seizures, and hypervigilance disorder.  After 16 sessions with Mary Lee Esty doing neurofeedback, he is symptom free and medication free.  He says he's spreading the word among fellow veterans that neurofeedback is a real life-changing therapy.  (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Military veteran Cliff Drake is hooked up to neurofeedback electrodes / sensors at Brainsake, a brain wellness and biofeedback center in Bethesda, MD on January 14, 2015. Photo: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The future of medicine, if doctors have their way, will likely involve getting people to monitor their health without thinking much about it. It's already possible: At a recent medical security event, a prominent researcher acknowledged that he had only belatedly realized that his phone had been counting his steps. The feature was so seamlessly integrated he didn’t even remember turning it on.

Even as biometric sensors become part of the background of everyday life, we’re still working to extract the insights that they have the potential to reveal. According to Dr. Leslie Saxon, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Biocomputing, more than 120 million Americans are already wearing some kind of sensor, and in the coming decades, that number will likely grow as the devices become less obtrusive. For Saxon, one goal of biometric monitoring is to give users what she referred to as “aha!” moments that grant clearer perspective on the ways they’re living — and the ways they could be living better.

Saxon believes that emerging biometric technologies can help individuals transform the ways they understand their own health. There’s an enormous potential,” she says, to make patients more literate in their own health needs and, as a consequence, improve their eating habits, prevent illness, and ultimately keep people alive and healthy for longer.

Though these sensors may eventually be perfect enough to become a routine part of medical care, for now they’re still changing quickly. “I’m constantly discovering things that are changing my perception of the field because we’re seeing them as they’re happening,” Saxon says. A handful of those innovative projects — currently in development or soon to arrive on the market — provide an exciting glimpse of the sensors your doctor will be convincing you to strap on in the coming decades.

Band-Aids That Monitor Brain Activity
Some of the most exciting biometric monitors come in the form of sensors that can be made almost invisible against the skin. Scientists at Dr. Todd Coleman’s University of California, San Diego–based Neural Interaction Lab are at the forefront of such research, having shown that it’s possible to integrate extremely thin and flexible semiconductors that monitor neural activity into materials like Band-Aids.

Like current EEG sensors, Coleman’s newest devices attach directly to the scalp, but they require no wires, meaning that they are far less cumbersome for the wearer. By measuring electrical activity in the brain and sending it out to other electronics, his EEG sensors may actually allow users to interact with the world through thought alone, effectively moving objects with their minds. On a more practical level, in research groups like the University of Pennsylvania’s Litt Lab, similar technologies are used to monitor and detect epileptic seizures. By tracking these events in real time, researchers are able to enrich their understanding of conditions that have typically been studied after the fact.

Stick-On Thermometers
Using flexible semiconductors like those employed by Coleman, VivaLnk's eSkin thermometer proposes to provide a more constant and unobtrusive alternative to conventional thermometers. Though they are not yet publicly available, these stickers, affixed to a person's forehead, will wirelessly relay information about the temperature of the surface to which they are attached.

The most obvious market, at least at the start, is parents hoping to closely monitor their feverish children. Designed to resemble the faces of cartoon bears, these thermometers collect data while a child is sleeping and save parents the fuss often involved with more traditional thermometers. As the company explains, “Since the patch looks and feels like a kids’ sticker, similar to a Band-Aid, it alleviates the fear and anxiety associated with taking their temperature.” Similar devices have been developed to help track the temperatures of firefighters, allowing their supervisors to pull them out of the blaze when they risk overheating.

Real-Time, Hypervigilant Baby Monitors
Like VivaLnk, Sensible Baby hopes to start measuring its users’ data when they’re young. The company claims that its device will monitor not just the temperature of infants, but also the child’s position and movement, information that the sensor will wirelessly transmit to phones and tablets. Such devices may well replace existing baby monitors, providing parents with enormous amounts of data about their children’s health. This will, Sensible Baby claims, give birth to the “quantified baby movement” of tomorrow. In the process, these devices may help habituate their bearers to regularized data collection, making it an essential part of their lives as they grow up.

Glucose-Sensitive Inks
The most exciting biosensors may be those we hardly notice. At the University of California, San Diego, researchers
have developed an ink that responds to blood sugar. For diabetics accustomed to regularly drawing their own blood or wearing awkward constant glucose monitors, these inks offer the possibility of very real relief. The researchers claim that users will be able to literally draw sensors onto their skin, offering a far simpler — and far more convenient — means of monitoring their health on the fly. Researchers at MIT are pursuing a similar project, one that would work through longer-lasting, though still temporary, “tattoos.” These inks do require a secondary device, akin to a digital wristwatch, to read and translate the information into actionable data. But they still promise to alleviate much of the frustration of diabetes management.

Socially Networked Biometrics
Saxon believes that social networks will be essential to future biometric sensors, partly because our data become more valuable when we can connect them to those of others. Information about our own health can be abstract unless we have points of comparison that allow us to understand how we measure up. The recently released
Biogram app allows users to “stamp their heart rate data on photos” before sharing them on Instagram. Similar systems are available through some fitness wearables that allow users to measure their progress against that of their friends. The socialization of biometric monitoring may help normalize it for those who still find it strange.

Networked Pill Bottles
Those who have to swallow a cornucopia of pills at various times throughout the day know it can be difficult to remember what you’ve taken when. The
Gema Kit contains small patches like those used in Coleman's and VivaLnk’s technologies. When a user interacts with items (such as pill bottles) to which a patch is affixed, the patch sends a signal to the user’s phone, which sends the data to the cloud. This data can help doctors monitor their charges’ health, even as it allows patients to communicate more accurately and honestly with their doctors. Though these patches aren't worn by people, they nevertheless speak to the practical potential of the technology that will power the biosensors of tomorrow, by keeping us honest about how well we're taking care of ourselves.