Tattoos are often whimsical, traditional, beautiful—but can they also be medical? The Dermal Abyss project, a collaboration of researchers at Harvard and MIT, is trying to develop a tattoo that can monitor an individual’s health. They have already created “bio-ink” capable of fluorescing at different colors in response to certain variables in the body. In theory, a diabetic inked with one of these tattoos would simply need to glance at their body art to check their blood sugar status.

Unlike regular ink, which is simply pigment molecules suspended in a liquid, this bio-ink contains molecules called ethers that react to specific ion concentrations by changing structure. When the ethers change structure, they re-emit absorbed energy as light at a different color than they did before.

The Dermal Abyss project has produced a proof of concept using the inks with pig skin, but openly notes the current hiccups in the system. For example, the ink seems to dissipate into the surrounding skin rather quickly. The scientists hope to scale the duration of the ink such that it can be used for variable time-scales. Will the design and size of the tattoo affect performance? Will it be necessary to adjust the ink to account for individual variation in ion levels? Could sweat cause dehydration-monitoring tattoos to misread the actual level of internal dehydration?

Science fiction has certainly opened our minds to the many possibilities for tattoos, and Dermal Abyss is the first project to start making scifi tattoos a reality.

Managing Correspondent: Zane Wolf

Image Credit: Harvard Medical School

Related SITN Articles: The Potential of Nanotechnology for Diabetes Management

Popular Press Links: Designing smart tattoos to help monitor your health – Forbes; Dermal Abyss Smart Tattoos May Know More Your Health Than You Do – Digital Trends


2 thoughts on “Harvard and MIT are making tattoos to monitor your health

  1. I’m being treated as a pre-diabetic. I had a brain tumor 6 yrs ago causing many illnesses for me. For me to get back any of my life I’d really like to be part of your physical stage on humans with the Ink.

  2. Hi,
    I am a type 1 diabetic and a friend just told me about blood sugar tattoos. This sounds awesome, but I’m not finding any recent articles saying if the project is still on-going, or has stalled out. Of course I’m hoping it’s on-going and getting close to the human testing phase. Is there any articles, or studies, that I could read about that are more current?

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