New wearable devices could track your health by the gases you produce

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Wearable devices could soon be able to monitor your health by measuring the gases your body produces. Researchers from The Ohio State University say they’re not talking about the smelly gases many people might be thinking of. Instead, futuristic health trackers will be looking at the gases coming out of your skin.

Until now, most wearable fitness devices rely on electrical signals to measure the chemicals coming out as you sweat. Unfortunately, these sensors often need large amounts of perspiration to produce an accurate reading. The OSU team’s new study suggests that the next generation of wearables should be able to scan gases that also leave the skin during a workout.

“It is completely non-invasive, and completely passive on the behalf of the user,” says lead author Anthony Annerino, a graduate student in materials science and engineering at Ohio State, in a university release.

Measuring your gases by next year?

Study authors note that some smartwatches can take more detailed measurements, such as pulse rates or temperatures, but researchers are hoping the next wave of wearable devices will go even further. These devices would sense for biomarkers related to metabolic disorders such as heart disease and diabetes.

“Discerning health issues through the skin is really the ultimate frontier,” says study co-author and professor of materials science and engineering Pelagia-Iren Gouma. “The project still has a couple of years to go,” said Gouma. “But in six months, we should have proof of concept and in a year, we’d like to have it tested in people.”

The Ohio State team wants their final product to be a small device capable of fitting around the ear or on the fingernails — areas where there’s less sweat in comparison to the arms or chest.

“We are developing a new generation of skin sensors, and it will really be the new norm,” Gouma adds.

All about the acetone

Sensors which examine the organic compounds we breath out (gases) are nothing new to health and science. For example, police officers have been giving people breathalyzer tests for years to screen for drunk drivers. However, the team notes that these tests only provide a “momentary snapshot” of what’s going on in the body.

Annerino says the new sensor researchers are working on can measure much smaller amounts of gaseous acetone leaving the skin. Acetone is an extremely important chemical that can reveal all sorts of things about the human body and a person’s health. In fact, acetone levels in your breath have a connection to blood sugar levels and even fat-burning rates.

“This is an area of research that hasn’t been nearly as well developed yet, because we’re just now producing the technology to measure lower concentrations of these gases with high selectivity,” Annerino explains.

To sense these chemicals, the team created a film material using derivatives of plant cellulose and electroactive polymers. The material bends in response to how much acetone the device detects in the environment.

From there, researchers placed the film over solutions containing alcohol, acetone, and water to assess its sensitivity, selectivity, and ability to accurately detect chemicals on a regular basis.

“We found significant bias toward bending more upon exposure to certain chemicals over others,” Annerino reports. “Not every research study has an obvious impact on society and people’s lives, but that’s something that this project in particular really has.”

Study authors add that the next generation wearable may also be able to detect ethanol levels leaving the skin — a key warning sign for liver disease.

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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