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The center element delivers a dose of heat to a blood vessel.
The center element delivers a dose of heat to a blood vessel.

A nearly invisible "tattoo" made of feather-light electronics could relay information about the health of your heart and blood pressure to doctors.

A prototype device was presented to the world in late October at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was built in the lab of engineering and material sciences professor John Rogers, who is renowned as a pioneer in developing and manufacturing ultra-thin stick-on sensors.

Electronic parts in gadgets tend to be brittle and hard, but the Rogers lab has found a way to create sensors that are small, flexible, and soft, to better interact with the body. Over the years, Rogers and his students have built stick-on patches that can measure the temperature of the skin or the rate at which people sweat, or even electrical signals produced by the brain or muscles.

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To develop these far-out concepts for sale, Rogers founded a company in Lexington, MC10, which is commercializing stick-on health sensors for use by athletes. Among their products is the Checklight, developed in partnership with Reebok, which can be worn on the head and measures impacts to the skull during sports like football.

Rogers's newest device, presented in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Science Advances, is the first stick-on sensor that can accurately measure blood flow, one key indicator of health in people with conditions like diabetes or atherosclerosis.

The tattoo itself looks like the symbol of some ancient sun god — there's a central metallic spot surrounded by curly gold lines radiating outward.

How does it work? "It turns out to be pretty simple to understand," said Rogers.

The device can be placed over a key vein or artery on the forearm or leg. When switched on, the element at the center of the pattern delivers a small and very precise continuous dose of heat to the blood flowing through the vessel under the skin.

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The sensors around the spot measure how quickly the heat dissipates, carried away by the flowing blood. The rate of cooling can be used to calculate the rate of blood flow.

Cosmetics company L'Oreal funded the research. Rogers said that L'Oreal California Research Center, which co-developed the device, is already conducting further tests internally with a view to using it as a research tool. And deployment is not too far away.

"Broader large-scale commercial deployment will likely happen through MC10 and L'Oreal," Rogers said.

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN

BetaBoston