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UMass patch would spot stressed-out soldiers

UMass scientists demonstrated a machine that prints nanotechnology used in body sensors to measure stress in military personnel.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

UMass scientists demonstrated a machine that prints nanotechnology used in body sensors to measure stress in military personnel.

Fitness bands and other wearable health monitors are all the rage among runners and other athletes who want to keep track of their workouts and measure vital statistics such as heart rate and calories burned. Now military personnel may soon have access to the same technology, in a patch that would be about the size and shape of a Band-Aid, and as flexible.

Based on research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the sensor would gauge stress and fatigue among armed services personnel.

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“Any time you’ve got someone making a command decision, you want to make sure they’re in the right frame of mind, that they’re alert, that they’re well rested,” says James Watkins, a polymer scientist who is leading the UMass effort.

Watkins and his colleagues are developing the patch in collaboration with General Electric Co. and the Air Force. The five-year, $450,000 project was announced in June and represents the first grant awarded by the Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium, an industry organization backed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory to turn nascent nanotechnologies into electronics that monitor human activities.

And while a store-bought Fitbit or other sports sensor could set you back $100, the goal of the UMass effort is to create a patch that costs less than $1.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials at a microscopic level to develop applications that can measure or perform highly specific functions that larger, bulkier devices can’t easily do.

The UMass patch, for example, would have tiny elements that test for chemicals in the wearer’s sweat that are indicators of stress and fatigue. The data would be transmitted via a wireless connection.

The electronic structures are meant to be small enough to fit into a Band-Aid-size device — and so small that they will not interfere with the patch’s flexibility.

Also, instead of hard plastic or metal, the electronics and the device would be made mostly of flexible plastics that move comfortably with the body.

Stress is an obvious problem for military personnel, but it is not always easy to detect, especially in settings other than ground combat. Cyber-warfare operators — such as drone pilots — are prone to long-term stress that can affect performance, says Wayne Chappelle, chief aeromedical clinical psychologist at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

During combat, those pilots may be called in to provide support for ground troops and witness the injury and death of colleagues.

Jacob John, a senior research assistant at UMass Amherst, demonstrated a machine that, using nanotechnology, fabricates sensors that can monitory human vital signs.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Jacob John, a senior research assistant at UMass Amherst, demonstrated a machine that, using nanotechnology, fabricates sensors that can monitory human vital signs.

“Regulating your stress is really important so that when you are called in to provide close air support, you’re thinking clearly, you’re focused, you’re not distracted, emotionally you’re calm and collected, and you’re able to effectively respond,” Chappelle said.

More than 30 percent of drone pilots experience symptoms related to high chronic stress, including difficulty sleeping, according to a survey of 1,084 pilots that Chappelle and colleagues wrote about in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders in May; nearly 15 percent of those pilots also had difficulty concentrating or had outbursts of irritability.

“The nanotechnology can help us identify individuals that perhaps are experiencing a high level of stress — they just aren’t aware of it — and in some cases make an improvement or an adjustment,” Chappelle said.

The patch would behave much like a tiny computer. After collecting sweat and extracting a chemical via microscopic gated channels, its electronics would measure and report the data. But unlike a computer chip, the patch won’t be made of silicon, which is expensive and time-consuming to work with. Instead, it will be constructed with minuscule plastic elements, using a technique called roll-to-roll printing. The technology, which is still under development, “prints” structures at a nanoscale or molecular level, and at a much lower cost.

“We want to be able to print these things for under a dollar,” Watkins said. In collaboration with the small company Carpe Diem in Franklin, the UMass scientists have built a device that can print at the 50-nanometer scale. (A single human hair is 50,000 nanometers thick — 1,000 times larger than the device’s printed structures.)

Four separate efforts funded by the nano-bio consortium will come together to create the monitor. The UMass effort will focus on physically processing sweat at extremely small scales. Three other grants, which have yet to be announced, will fund separate efforts to create the device’s packaging, remotely relay the patch’s data, and link the measurements to physical conditions such as stress or fatigue.

The Air Force and GE collaborative will be spurred by a larger push at UMass to build new nanotechnology infrastructure.

Last year, Watkins and his collaborators received $46 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a state-run initiative, to build a laboratory dedicated to the creation of personalized health monitors.

UMass has also received a 10-year, $36 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing, a nanomanufacturing research center directed by Watkins.

The center will be a testing ground for new equipment, including solar cells, energy-efficient batteries, and “smart paint” that helps control room lighting. Industry partners will be able to use the facility for development and demonstrations.

And the wearable health patch is not likely to be used solely by the military.

“The military market is just one small piece of the market that exists,” said Scott Miller, manager of the Nanostructures and Surfaces Laboratory at General Electric. “There’s the civilian market. It’s an extension of wearable electronics and fitness monitors.”

John Berg, chief executive at Carpe Diem, said UMass could be a leader in flexible printing technologies and help grow a nascent industry; in his shop alone, Berg plans to add three jobs to his small staff of 10.

Successive generations of patch health monitors will be able to detect heart rates, concussions, and a host of other parameters, said UMass researcher Jeffrey Morse, managing director of the new UMass center.

Many chemicals that occur in sweat also show up in blood, so similar patches could be used to keep tabs on heart and liver functions.

The patch could even send data to a doctor wirelessly, without the patient going in for a blood test.

“The idea is to keep people out of the hospital and reduce medical costs,” Morse said.

With the current crop of monitors, such as Fitbit, “we’re mostly talking about the personal athlete or the weekend warrior,” Morse said. “But I think the health side of this is going to be where the big impact comes in.”

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