UBC M.A.Sc. Student Developing a Wearable Device to Track Heart and Brain Signals

Fitness and health trackers have undergone rapid technological development in the past decade, allowing average consumers to now better understand their sleep, track their diet, and monitor their physical activity. Even without the purchase of a wrist-based tracking device, your smartphone can now generate key insights about your health from just sitting in your pocket all day.

Similar technologies are applied throughout the medical field; carefully monitoring patient health is a vital step to providing timely, effective care. The current process to track brain and heart signals, however, requires trained personnel for both setup and continual maintenance. Furthermore, the equipment used in existing signal monitoring techniques can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Jorge Lozano, a UBC M.A.Sc. working in the Stoeber Lab, has his sights set on changing that. Through his graduate work, Lozano has been looking into developing a new tool for the long-term measurement of heart and brain signals that is more affordable, easier to use, and comfortable to wear.

In the status quo, a wet electrode is used to monitor vital signs, which is the source of a lot of the discomfort for patients and health care workers alike. By “wet”, this implies that an electrolytic gel or liquid is used to detect the electrical signals produced by our heart and brain. While this method is effective for recording high-quality measurements, the electrode will inevitably dry over time, meaning trained personnel must apply and constantly re-apply the paste for any extended usage. Additionally, the paste can be felt on the skin, meaning it can cause discomfort, especially when signal monitoring is carried out for a while.

Lozano’s alternative is a new microneedle dry electrode that will allow for long term measurement of heart and brain signals at a fraction of the previous cost. Microneedles themselves are painless for consumers, despite their intimidating title; at roughly 0.6mm in length, they do puncture the skin, but do not reach any pain nerve receptors. Yet, at this length, they are still able to detect electrical signals that can be used to generate key insights.

Current microneedle development is painful for manufacturers, however. The fabrication of the needles is complex, and existing market microneedles lack key electrical and mechanical properties for optimal use. Lozano’s research includes a new kind of microneedle that is backed by a flexible electrode, allowing for increased coverage over any part of the human body. Additionally, via conductive polymeric materials and an innovative cast-and-mold fabrication process, development is now significantly simpler and less expensive.

A prototype of Lozano's design.
An early prototype of Lozano’s microneedle dry electrode technique

Lozano, in reflecting on the journey from the beginning of his undergraduate degree to the midst of his master’s, identified a lot of growth he had to undergo to get this far. “I think my degree has had a lot of small challenges,” he mentions, “one of them was learning to fail and let go of some ideas that you thought will work, I easily spent weeks working on a process or a material that at the end will not be useful for my device.” Learning how to iterate quickly with hardware, as opposed to software, became another learning point for Lozano. Reflecting back, he says “[i]n contrast, with software projects, [the development of the microneedle] required intensive use of different equipment for testing, fabrication, characterization, so I needed to learn quickly […] in order to have faster prototype iterations.

In the future, Lozano hopes to work in a position where he can conduct research and development for medical devices, right at the intersection of electronics and healthcare. It isn’t hard to imagine that in just a mere few years, with this research in hand, consumer-ready wearable devices can democratize health tracking, making it affordable to detect issues with your health far earlier and empower medical professionals to get in front of various diseases before they strike.

Learn more about Lozano’s research as a part of the Stoeber Lab.