'Wristwatch' device senses body chemistry

Researchers develop metabolite monitoring device
The metabolite monitoring device, shown here, is the size of a wristwatch. The sensor strip, which sticks out in this photo, can be tucked back, lying between the device and the user's skin. (Murat Yokus, NC State University)

Researchers have developed a wristwatch-sized device that can monitor an individual's body chemistry to help improve athletic performance and identify potential health problems. The device can be used for everything from detecting dehydration to tracking athletic recovery.

"This technology allows us to test for a wide range of metabolites in almost real time," said Michael Daniele, co-corresponding author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University and in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at NC State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Metabolites are markers that can be monitored to assess an individual's metabolism. Any metabolite levels outside normal parameters could let trainers or health professionals know that something's wrong. For athletes, it could also be used to help tailor training efforts to improve physical performance.

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The proof-of-concept study conducted by the researchers tested sweat from human participants and monitored for glucose, lactate, pH and temperature, Daniele said.

A replaceable strip on the back of the device is embedded with chemical sensors. That strip rests against the user's skin, where it comes into contact with the user's sweat. Data from the sensors in the strip are interpreted by hardware inside the device, which then records the results and relays them to a user's smartphone or smartwatch.

"The device is the size of an average watch, but contains analytical equipment equivalent to four of the bulky electrochemistry devices currently used to measure metabolite levels in the lab," Daniele said. "We've made something that is truly portable, so that it can be used in the field."

According to the researchers, while the sensor strips in the research paper focused on measuring glucose, lactate and pH, they can be customized to monitor for other substances that can be markers for health and athletic performance.

"We're optimistic that this hardware could enable new technologies to reduce casualties during military or athletic training, by spotting health problems before they become critical," Daniele said. "It could also improve training by allowing users to track their performance over time. For example, what combination of diet and other variables improves a user's ability to perform?"

The researchers are conducting a study to further test the technology when it is being worn by people under various conditions.

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