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Boffins working on biodegradable flexi LED implants

Silky hand-tattoo displays to replace watches, PDAs?

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Boffins in America are working on biodegradable, flexible electronic devices printed on silk, which could be implanted in the human body and would decay naturally over time. Applications could include LED displays inlaid beneath the skin, or direct nerve-controlled interfaces.

MIT Tech Review reports on the new in-body tech, which is seen as much more practical and less invasive than current implants. These have rigid structures and have to be "canned" or encased to protect them from body fluids and vice versa.

Rather, Professor Brian Litt of Pennsylvania Uni plans to build devices laid on flexible, foldable, rollable thin silk sheets. The silk backing is gradually absorbed without difficulty by the body - Litt and his fellow boffins can design for a period of months or years as required - leaving only microscopic amounts of silicon, as the circuitry is only nanometres thick. Silicon is "biocompatible" rather than "biodegradable", but in such tiny amounts it isn't an issue.

All this means that an electronic device can be rolled up or folded and slipped into place through a relatively small incision. Litt and his colleagues believe they will soon have working silk-backed LEDs, for instance, allowing one to have an LED "tattoo" beneath one's skin able to display anything from the time to one's current blood-sugar count.

Other ploys might include connections to the nerves, perhaps wirelessly linked to computers or other devices. Other researchers have also proposed using such hookups to "jumpwire" past broken or damaged nerve connections, so restoring control over a paralysed limb.

The flexibility of wetted silk might even allow circuitry to conform to the contours of the brain, according to the scientists, perhaps allowing deep-brain stimulation techniques of the sort used to keep Parkinson's disease under control.

Obstacles that lie ahead before we all get our under-skin bluetooth OLED displays, brain-to-computer direct interfaces, nerve jumpwire links and so on include the elimination of gold and titanium from the flexi-circuitry tech, and in many cases the matter of power supplies.

"It would be nice to see the sophistication of [implant] devices start to catch up with the sophistication of our basic science, and this technology could really close that gap," Litt told Tech Review. ®

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