DermalAbyss: Possibilities of Biosensors as a Tattooed Interface

Xin LIU, Katia Vega

Can tattoos embrace technology in order to make the skin interactive?

The DermalAbyss project was the result of a collaboration between MIT researchers Katia Vega, Xin Liu, Viirj Kan, and Nick Barry, and Harvard Medical School researchers Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang. 

DermalAbyss was a proof-of-concept that presented a novel approach to bio-interfaces in which the body surface would be rendered as an interactive display. By replacing traditional tattoo inks  with biosensors whose colors change in response to variations in the interstitial fluid, it blended advances in biotechnology with traditional methods in tattoo artistry. 

This was a research project, which has ended. There are no plans to develop DermalAbyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials.

We investigated four biosensors, reacting to three pieces of biochemical information in body fluid and changes colors: The pH sensor changes between purple and pink, the glucose sensor shifts between blue and brown; the sodium and a second pH sensor fluoresce at a higher intensity under UV light.

The Dermal Abyss creates a direct access to the compartments in the body and reflects inner metabolic processes in a shape of a tattoo. It could be used for applications in continuously monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body.

Currently, during daily activities and alimentary habits, diabetics need to monitor their glucose levels by piercing the skin, 3 to 10 times per day. With Dermal Abyss, we imagine the future where the painful procedure is replaced with a tattoo, of which the color from pink to purple based on the glucose levels. Thus, the user could monitor the color changes and the need of insulin.

Preliminary evaluation was done in an ex vivo pig skin model. Several injections in the skin were done in order to understand the visibility and functionality of the biosensors.

Publication: Katia Vega, Nan Jiang, Xin LIU, Viirj Kan, Nicolas Barry, Ali Yetisen, Pattie Maes and Joe Paradiso. "The Dermal Abyss: Interfacing with the Skin by Tattooing Biosensors" In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers. ACM, 2017. 

PH sensing: low value

PH  sensing: high value

Current biosensors still have limitations that future researchers should address before implantation.

  1. The range of colors and intensities of the current biosensors should be extended to enable higher-resolution information. The optimization of the detection range and the selectivity of the existing biosensors will accelerate their translation to the clinic or market.
  2. The safety profile of these biosensors must also be characterized, beginning first with cytoxicity assays and biocompatibility in vitro before progressing to in vivo animal studies to determine systemic biocompatibility, in terms of toxicity and interference with normal tissue function.
  3. Long-term in vivo researches will be needed for establishing the retention of the biosensors in the skin and to quantify biosensor diffusion in tissue. One potential research direction would be to conjugate the biosensors to polymeric microspheres through acrylate groups to prevent diffusion into tissues.


Katia Vega, Viirj Kan, Xin Liu, Nick Barry, Pattie Maes, Joseph Paradiso 
MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Nan Jiang, Ali Yetisen, Ali Khademhosseini, Seok-Hyun Yun
Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Research Topics
#health #wearable computing