Here’s how you could track your breathing and digestion with skin-worn wearables

For many of us, using wearables to measure our health and wellness is an essential part of our lives. A new study suggests that future devices such as skin-worn wearables could bring even more health data to our fingertips.

The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine earlier in November, details a new “game-changing wearable” type that could allow doctors to monitor key health metrics in their patients remotely. However, the tech could also be used for user-facing applications — and the implications are fascinating.

Here’s what you should know.

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Inside a new type of medical wearable

Generally, commercially available health wearables take the form of wrist-worn watches or bands that loop around the arm, chest, or waist. Some wearables even fit on your ring or sit on your head for tracking brainwaves.

However, researchers at Northwestern University have invented a new type of wearable. The team reportedly created a series of “soft, miniaturized wearable devices” that adhere to the skin and provide real-time, wireless monitoring.

In their research, the team applied several skin-worn wearables to patients to remotely monitor the air moving into and out of their lungs, digestive processes, heartbeats, and more.

The skin-worn wearables, aimed at medical rather than consumer use, are small and lightweight. Each contains a pair of microphones, flash memory, Bluetooth connectivity, and other electrical components, the university said in a release.

“Currently, there are no existing methods for continuously monitoring and spatially mapping body sounds at home or in hospital settings,” said John Rogers, one of the lead developers of the device. “In close collaborations with our clinical teams, we set out to develop a new strategy for monitoring patients in real-time continuously and without encumbrances associated with rigid, wired, bulky technology.”

What metrics can this wearable monitor?

Skin-worn wearables on a patient
Image courtesy of Northwestern University

According to the researchers, the devices can provide “continuous monitoring and spatial mapping of body sounds.” Like a doctor’s traditional stethoscope, these sounds can provide a range of data to medical practitioners, such as airflow in the lungs, cardiac rhythm changes, or the movement of various substances through the intestines.

However, the wearable isn’t just listening for sounds — it’s creating a sensing network. It can capture sounds and intelligently correlate them to body processes. Of course, it also automatically separates external sounds from internal body sounds.

One key advantage of the device, beyond its ability to remotely monitor health metrics, is the fact that it can simultaneously listen to and compare different regions of the lungs. Dr. Ankit Bharat, a researcher on the study, likened it to “3 highly trained doctors listening to different regions of the lungs simultaneously with their stethoscopes.”

The team found the device incredibly useful for monitoring infants, particularly those in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). They allow for the monitoring of infants in a non-invasive but continuous way.

Additionally, the team found that the skin-worn wearables were also useful for monitoring adult lunch health.

In clinical trials with adults, the team used the devices to successfully capture the distribution of lung sounds at various locations on the body, allowing them to analyze a single breath in its totality.

Because of the real-time monitoring, this wearable could provide valuable insights to physicians in determining whether a patient’s lung health is getting better or worse.

The future of medical wearables

Wearable manufacturers, and Apple in particular, seem to be increasingly committed to expanding the ways that smart devices can improve a user’s health and well-being.

Although the research in this study is aimed at the medical field, the technology and methods could eventually make their way to a consumer device.

Just think of the electrocardiogram, which was once an expensive tool used solely in hospitals. Now, most Apple users can have one strapped to their wrists.

It’s unlikely that Apple would create small wearable devices solely for lung or digestive monitoring. Still, the Cupertino tech giant could use a similar idea to monitor various body functions passively.

With microphones implemented in some type of body-worn wearable, Apple could theoretically monitor for lung sounds and send you an “Irregular Breathing” alert — just like it does for heartbeats.

Of course, that’s pure speculation at this point, but the Northwestern University research could provide us a glimpse of what the future of wearables could look like.


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