Skin Patch Could Track Stress in Armed Service Members

A new flexible patch developed by the University of Massachusetts could track stress and fatigue among members of the U.S. Armed Forces. The technology is similar to that used by many professional and amateur athletes to track heart rates and calories burned during workouts. But instead of tracking a relatively short-term workout, the patch designed by UMass would track stress and fatigue over a longer period of time.

Improving Short-Term and Long-Term Health

Service members in combat and other high-stress situations can face significant physical and mental wear and tear. The patch could be used to ensure that active service members are fit as they carry out their duties, and could also be used to identify service members who may be at higher risk for future illnesses such as substance use disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The patch was developed in collaboration with General Electric and the U.S. Air Force, with a $450,000 grant from the Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium (which is backed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory). The developers plan to use the technology to ensure that service members—particularly those who are in positions to make critical command decisions—are not suffering from exceptional stress or fatigue that could hamper the performance of their duties. Drone pilots have been a main area of concern for the Air Force. These pilots have been found to be particularly vulnerable to long-term stress. Studies have estimated that as many as 30 percent of drone pilots suffer from chronic stress symptoms as well as fatigue related to poor sleep patterns.

Developing a Flexible, Inexpensive Tool

The UMass-led team has worked to develop a monitoring device that is both cheaper and even more mobile than current commercial fitness-tracking tools. The final product should be smaller than a Band-Aid, and made of flexible plastics that will not restrict movement. Furthermore, by using a new technology called roll-to-roll printing that allows computing elements to be printed in nanoscale (i.e., very, very small), UMass hopes the patch will eventually cost less than $1. The patch will be able to collect sweat from its wearer and then isolate biomolecules in the sweat that are indicators of stress and fatigue. An electronic sensor in the patch will be able to measure the concentration of these biomolecules and transfer the data for analysis.

Removing Service Members From Stressful Situations

The Air Force hopes that this technology will allow it to remove service members from stressful situations or provide them with resources before chronic stress or fatigue can develop into mental illness or other serious health problems. Studies have shown that veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces have exceptionally high rates of PTSD and substance use disorders, as well as serious psychological distress (SPD). The extent to which chronic stress contributes to the prevalence of these disorders, if at all, is unclear. PTSD, for example, is currently understood to be the result of a single highly-traumatic incident rather than chronic stressors. However, it is possible that this kind of technology could help to identify people whose PTSD symptoms have not yet manifested, or people at risk for other psychological disorders that may be triggered or worsened by long-term stress.

Uses Beyond Military

While the current project is intended specifically for military use, the UMass developers are confident that this kind of technology could eventually have applications far beyond identifying stressed-out service members. The team believes that future patches could do everything from detecting concussions to monitoring heart and liver function. The extremely flexible and lightweight nature of the nanoscale printing means that such patches could easily be worn by anyone and applied nearly anywhere without interfering with people’s daily lives.

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