Graz University Researchers Develop Tattoo Electrodes For Long-Term EEG Brain Monitoring

Tattoo electrodes for EEG
Image credit: Francesco Greco, TU Graz

EEG or Electroencephalography is a test used to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain. It uses electrodes to record brainwaves on the scalp. However, due to these electrodes, EEG cannot be used for extended periods of time. These are usually hard, require a gel to be applied, and are applied en masse using a tightly worn head cap. Now, researchers at Graz University of Technology in Austria have developed ultra-thin electrodes that can be worn unobtrusively on the head for long periods of time.

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When Francesco Greco, head of the Laboratory of Applied Materials for Printed and Soft electronics (LAMPSe) at the Institute of Solid State Physics at Graz University of Technology, developed so-called “tattoo electrodes” together with Italian scientists, it opened up completely new paths in electrophysiological examinations, such as electrocardiography (ECG) or electromyography (EMG).

The electric tattoos were 700 to 800 nanometers, which is about 100 times thinner than a human hair. The tattoos adapt to uneven skin and are hardly noticeable on the body. Moreover, the “tattoos” are dry electrodes; in contrast to gel electrodes, they work without a liquid interface and cannot dry out. They are excellently suited for long-term measurements. Even hairs growing through the tattoo do not interfere with the signal recording, reports TU Graz News.

Building on this pioneering achievement, Greco, together with his colleagues, has now achieved a further milestone in the measurement of bioelectrical signals: the group has modified the tattoo electrodes in such a way that they can also be used in electroencephalography (EEG) – i.e. to measure brain activity.

To do this, the researchers used inkjet printing of conductive polymer on tattoo paper. The composition and thickness of the transfer paper and conductive polymer have been optimized to achieve an even better connection between the tattoo electrode and the skin and to record the EEG signals with maximum quality, because: “Brain waves are in the low-frequency range and EEG signals have a very low amplitude. They are much more difficult to capture in high quality than EMG or ECG signals,” explains Laura Ferrari, who worked on this project during her Ph.D. and is now a postdoc researcher in France.

A tattoo-like electrode on the back of a man's head
Image credit: Francesco Greco, TU Graz

Tests under real clinical conditions have shown that the EEG measurement with the optimized tattoos is as successful as with conventional EEG electrodes. “Due to inkjet printing and the commercially available substrates, however, our tattoos are significantly less expensive than current EEG electrodes and also offer more advantages in terms of wearing comfort and long-term measurements in direct comparison,” says Greco.

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The new tattoo electrodes are the very first dry electrode type that is suitable for long-term EEG measurements and at the same time compatible with magneto-encephalography (MEG). MEG is a well-established method for monitoring brain activity. The new generation of tattoo electrodes consists exclusively of conductive polymers, i.e. it does not contain any metals which can be problematic for MEG examinations, and is printed exclusively with inkjet.

“With our method, we produce the perfect MEG-compatible electrode while reducing costs and production time,” says Greco. The TU Graz researcher is currently spinning ideas on how this technology can be used in clinics and in neuroengineering as well as in the field of brain-computer interfaces.

Details of the latest development of the Styrian-Italian-French research alliance was published in the journal npj Flexible Electronics.

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