Technology in Our NICU

"Tattoo" Electronics Get Attention From National Geographic

In June 2013, National Geographic magazine came to UC San Diego Medical Center to photograph a new technology that could eventually replace the bulky wires that monitor infants in the NICU. An article on wearable electronics — such as the patch of tiny circuits that is currently being studied in our NICU — is planned for National Geographic’s January issue. See the slideshow below to learn more about the photo shoot and UC San Diego’s study of tattoo electronics.

This newborn served as a model for the National Geographic photo shoot. He’s wearing the “tattoo” electronics device that is the focus of the study led by Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who helped develop the device. NICU babies who qualify for the study wear this tiny patch, which provides real-time measurements of multiple vital signs. It sticks to the skin with a gentle adhesive like a wearable tattoo, stretching and flexing as needed while maintaining high performance.
National Geographic photographer Robert Clark sets up his equipment in the NICU. He was there for several hours to take photos and talk to researchers about the study, which could lead to new ways of understanding developing newborns’ brains because of the device’s potential for providing earlier, more reliable data. Experts are especially interested in ways to reduce brain-related cognitive and motor development issues, which can result from seizures, reduced blood flow to the brain, and brain hemorrhage.
The small adhesive patches (shown here over the baby’s eyebrows) adhere gently with water and contain sensors to monitor vital signs. In the rear is a receiver, attached with wires that are less intrusive than those currently used in NICUs. “Getting this to work with babies who are very fragile, will also go a long way toward demonstrating that the device is robust while maintaining the comfort of the patient,” said Coleman. “As an added bonus, we’re doing something to reduce the physical barriers between parents and their newborn babies in intensive care, which can only be beneficial.”
Throughout the photo shoot, the mother’s touch helped the baby remain calm, and Clark encouraged her to touch the baby. The less intrusive wires used with the device make it easier for parents to hold and cuddle babies.
The blue sensor on the side of the baby’s head is an example of current technology. The new devices being tested adhere more easily and attach more securely to the skin.
Eventually, this technology could lead to wireless transmission of data, which could also be used to monitor mothers and babies before and after delivery. In fact, Coleman is working with UC San Diego’s Dr. Gladys Ramos on a related study to use the tattoo electronic device to monitor women in labor. The wireless capability could eventually also be useful in developing countries. The National Geographic article on the technology is scheduled for the January issue.

For more information on the research study, see Hugs From Mom and Dad, Without the Wires.