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Printed Sensors May Turn Gummy Bears into Ingestible Medical Probes

Printed electrodes on edible gummy bears is an idea that could lead to ingestible medical sensors that can be easily administered to children in the future.

Microelectrodes can be used for direct measurement of electrical signals in the brain or heart. These applications require soft materials, however. With existing methods, attaching electrodes to such materials poses significant challenges.

Researchers including those from Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany have succeeded in printing electrodes directly onto a gummy bear a popular chewy candy. The microelectrode array could detect voltage changes resulting from activity in neurons or muscle cells.

Microelectrode arrays have been around for a long time. In their original form, they consist of hard materials such as silicon. This results in several disadvantages when they come into contact with living cells.

In the laboratory, their hardness affects the shape and organization of the cells, for example. Inside the body, the hard materials can trigger inflammation or the loss of organ functionalities. When electrode arrays are placed on soft materials, these problems are avoided.

This has sparked intensive research into these solutions. Until now, most initiatives have used traditional methods, which are time-consuming and require access to expensive specialized laboratories.

"If you instead print the electrodes, you can produce a prototype relatively quickly and cheaply. The same applies if you need to rework it," said Bernhard Wolfrum, Professor of Neuroelectronics at TUM."Rapid prototyping of this kind enables us to work in entirely new ways," said Wolfrum.

Researchers work with a high-tech version of an inkjet printer. The electrodes themselves are printed with carbon-based ink.

To prevent the sensors from picking up stray signals, a neutral protective layer is then added to the carbon paths. The researchers tested the process on various substrates, including a soft form of silicon called PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane), agarose - a substance commonly used in biology experiments - and finally various forms of gelatin, including a gummy bear that was first melted and then allowed to harden.

Each of these materials has properties suitable for certain applications. For example, gelatin-coated implants can reduce unwanted reactions in living tissue.

Through experiments with cell cultures, the team was able to confirm that the sensors provide reliable measurements. With an average width of 30 micrometers, they also permit measurements on a single cell or just a few cells. This is difficult to achieve with established printing methods.

Printed microelectrode arrays on soft materials could be used in many different areas. They are suitable not only for rapid prototyping in research but could also change the way patients are treated.

"In the future, similar soft structures could be used to monitor nerve or heart functions in the body, for example, or even serve as a pacemaker," said Wolfrum.

At present, he is working with his team to print more complex three-dimensional microelectrode arrays. They are also studying printable sensors that react selectively to chemical substances, and not only to voltage fluctuations.
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