Prepare to be amazed, because a new development in biomedical engineering may have just revolutionized heart treatment. We are talking about a graphene “tattoo” that sticks to the heart and is able to deliver electrical signals to help it maintain a regular beat. This “futuristic pacemaker” has the potential to be a game-changer in the world of cardiology, and scientists estimate that a version for human use could be already available for testing within the next five years.

The team at Northwestern University in Chicago has been working for years on implantable devices that can conform to the human body; however, a major challenge they face is how to combine rigid electronics with soft, pulsating tissues. For more context, the current method for installing pacemakers involves threading wires with electrodes through a vein inside the heart — but with the heart beating around 100,000 times per day, these wires will eventually break. The solution for this issue would be employing ultra-thin materials that move along with the heart’s motions (much like plastic wrap on quivering Jell-O).

Transforming the way pacemakers work, this graphene electronic device clings to body tissues like a temporary tattoo.

Thanks to the use of graphene (a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern), the scientists were able to end up with a product that employs a material that is highly flexible, biocompatible, transparent, conductive, and mechanically strong. Dmitry Kireev, a biomedical engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, was behind the development, and when Northwestern’s Igor Efimov saw the potential for heart tissue, he reached out to Kireev and a collaboration was born.

The graphene was layered between sheets of stretchy silicone and ultrathin polymer, with gold tape connecting it to wires, leading to a power source. In experiments on mouse hearts and living rats, the heart tattoo corrected an irregular beat by sending pulses of electricity to the organ.

Delivering electrical signals, the gadget will be able to keep the heart pumping properly.

The possibilities for this technology are mind-boggling. Future versions of the tattoo will be wireless, using a tiny antenna to pick up electrical signals from an external device placed on a person’s chest. Efimov even envisions graphene electrodes the size of rice grains injected into heart muscle, performing pacemaker duties without the typical clunky components.

It’s hard not to get excited about the potential impact of this technology on the millions of people living with heart conditions. As Efimov says, “Now’s the time to develop it.”

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