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Next Level Ink

MIT Has Created a Biosensing, Color Changing Tattoo Ink

These tattoos could help diabetics read their sugar levels without a needle.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Everyone and their mother has a tattoo these days, but in the future your ink stains may be more than a daily reminder of that wild week you spent in Cabo.

A team of researchers at MIT Media Labs is developing the Dermal Abyss, an ink that turns tattoos into a biosensor interface. Rather than using traditional tattoo inks, the fluids used by the MIT researchers change colors in response to changes in interstitial fluid, or the stuff that surrounds tissue cells in the body.

Despite its unsettling name, Dermal Abyss is both aesthetically pleasing and potentially a game changing technology for people with illnesses that require constant monitoring, such as diabetics.

Rather than using traditional tattoo inks, the fluids used by the MIT researchers are biosensors. These are liquids that change colors in response to changes in interstitial fluid, the stuff that surrounds tissue cells in the body.

This technology could offer new ways of monitoring the body.

The pH sensing ink, which measures the alkalinity of your interstitial fluid, changes from pink to purple as the alkalinity increases. The glucose sensor changes from blue to brown as the concentration of this basic sugar increases. The sodium sensor fluoresces under a UV light, moving to a more intense green as the salt levels increase.

The researchers think that this technology could offer new ways of monitoring the body. It could obviate the need for diabetics to prick their skin up to ten times a day to measure glucose levels. All they'd need to do is get a single tattoo that would inform the person that they need insulin by changing color.

"The Dermal Abyss creates a direct access to the compartments in the body and reflects inner metabolic processes in a shape of a tattoo," the MIT researchers write on the Dermal Abyss site. "It could be used for applications in continuously monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body."

Dermal Abyss is only the Media Lab's latest foray into turning the body's largest organ into a digital interface. Late last year it also unveiled DuoSkin, which is essentially a temporary tattoo made from gold that can be used to interact with Wifi connected devices. Between this and Dermal Abyss, it seems like MIT is well on its way to creating a tomorrow where pragmatics don't require a sacrifice in personal aesthetics.

"We believe that in the future, on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified," MIT Media Lab researchers wrote on their site. "Instead they will converge towards the user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations."