The day my infant son was brought home was the day the most horrible thought any parent can conjure occurred to me—what if he stops breathing? Watching him lying there in his crib asleep; his little chest rising up and down scant millimeters with each breath powered by a pumping heart not much larger than a ping pong ball; wondering how the heck something so small can continue to keep running.
To a guy size means power. And if my infant son were an engine I would immediately want to outfit him with a four-barrel Holly carburetor, connect him to an engine monitor and tweak his fuel and air mixture until I was satisfied that his breathing had the purr of a souped-up Chevy Nova. Oh, and I would also do something about those fluid and gas leaks as well while at it.
New parent paranoia is something all parents go through. The unfortunate part, however, is when paranoia becomes a reality, and there is no reality more heart-wrenching than a family who has lost an infant to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Fortunately, this may change. In the August issue of Science, researchers announce the invention of an electronic skin that has limitless potential for monitoring vital signs via a thin patch as innocuous as a child’s rub-on tattoo.
Materials Science researcher John Rogers and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have recently reported their invention of an electronic skin that can be applied to a patient to monitor heartbeats, muscle contractions, brain activity and voice. This “electronic skin” is a flexible latticework of electronic circuits sandwiched between sheets of polyester that sticks to human skin without the use of adhesives. It can be applied and removed easily and remain on the skin up to days at a time until the skin cells beneath the patch begin to naturally slough off.
The electronics of the skin includes sensors, antennas, light emitting diodes, and solar cells or magnetic inductive coils to power the skin. The circuits connecting the components are S-shaped filaments that allow the skin to be stretched without breaking the circuits. Also included is a wireless transmitter that can send data remotely to a computer for analysis by a physician.
Rogers states, “Our main focus from a research standpoint is on healthcare related applications because I think that's the most impactful class of use of this kind of device. So we're spending our time mostly in that arena, physiological status monitoring, human-machine interfaces, devices to assist with physical rehabilitation.”
The significance of this research is that it opens a new world of possibilities for integrating man with machine. In a way it is similar to the invention of the transistor which replaced the bulky vacuum tubes of old electronics. Miniaturizing electronic components was an important advancement that made possible small electronic healthcare devices such as pacemakers. Among its possibilities, electronic skin has the potential to reduce the number of SIDS-related deaths.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
According to the National Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome/ Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SUIDS/SIDS) Resource Center, statistics from 2005 show that SIDS is the third leading cause of infant death and the first leading cause of infant death for infants 1 to 12 months of age. In 2005 there were 2,230 reported cases of SIDS in the U.S. with the U.S. being the country with the 2nd highest SIDS death rate.
The incidence of SIDS-related deaths has decreased significantly since 1990 when the health community began advocating parents of newborns to position their infants on their backs as opposed to their stomachs for sleeping. However, SIDS continues and the causes of SIDS appear to be multifactorial. Potential factors such as prenatal births, smoking or drug use during pregnancy, secondhand smoke exposure and being wrapped in excessive sleepwear or soft bedding may be to blame. An inborn physiological factor may be a culprit as well with the arcuate nucleus, a part of the brain that helps control breathing and awakening during sleep when blood-oxygen levels drop.
An electronic skin with sensors designed to monitor a sleeping infant as a prophylactic measure has the potential to decrease the incidence of SIDS even further through a monitoring/warning system linked directly to sleeping parents and/or a hospital. Furthermore, the skin may be designed to not only monitor, but apply a stimulus to a sleeping infant who has stopped breathing or whose blood-oxygen levels indicate an excess of carbon dioxide from rebreathing its own breaths due to poor sleep positioning and bulky bedding.
The point is, is that health care may be the ideal beta run for testing out this electronic skin technology and discovering what it can do for mankind. And what better application for applying a new generation in electronic technology than with a new generation of children.
As for my infant son—he’s a teenager now. I don’t watch him while he sleeps anymore, but now I can’t help but wonder how something so big can sleep so long. Maybe they’ll make a patch for that too.
Source: Science 12 August 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6044 pp. 830-831 DOI: 10.1126/science.1209094