Xinyu Liu and Rosalie Wang receive 2022 NFRF Exploration Grant for skin-like wearable technology

Professors Xinyu Liu (MIE) and Rosalie Wang (Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – KITE) received $250,000 in research funding through the 2022 New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Exploration Grant to create a new skin-like wearable technology to support stroke rehabilitation.

The NFRF promotes groundbreaking high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary research in exciting new areas that have the potential to deliver game-changing impacts.

Research summary: Bottlebrush elastomer-based stretchable electronics for upper-limb rehabilitation

Stroke, as the second leading cause of death worldwide, significantly impairs the activities of daily living for patients. Its impacts upon many aspects of a patient’s life require targeted rehabilitation to address the personalized sequela. The current clinical practices usually need ongoing and complex assessments in a hospital or clinic, leading to inconvenience and inconsistency of gains for patients. Thus, an “always-available” assistance for stroke patients is of paramount importance. With recent advances in wearable electronics, it is foreseeable to realize a “rehab-clinic-on-skin” where all the current assessment (e.g., motion measurement and electromyography (EMG)) and treatment (e.g., functional electrical stimulation (FES)) tools are integrated onto a patient’s skin imperceptibly. To achieve that, stretchable electronics mechanically matching the human skin need to be developed. Currently, there is still large gaps on conductive materials and stretchable electronics design.

To tackle these challenges, we will develop an ultrasoft and inherently adhesive bottlebrush elastomer (BBE) mimicking mechanical properties of different tissues such as skin. With the Young’s modulus orders of magnitude lower than those of commonly used elastomers, a BBE substrate provides much better conformity with human skin and has imperceptible physical effects to patients. We will also develop a liquid metal/silver composite that can be patterned onto the ultrasoft BBE with extraordinary conductivity, stretchability, and adhesion, which will be used to construct BBE-based printed circuit boards (PCBs). We will integrate inertial measurement (IMU) modules, EMG/FES modules, and wireless communication modules into a BBE-based PCB to achieve ultrasoft, stretchable, and adhesive electronics on skin for upper-limb rehabilitation.

Stroke imposes heavy burdens on the quality of life for patients and their families. To improve the comfort and provide “always-available” rehabilitation for patients, we design new material platforms and “clinic-on-skin” devices, which are highly demanded for both patients and hospitals or clinics. Our study combines intradisciplinary research of materials science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and occupational science. We propose a new concept of “rehab-clinic-on-skin” for helping patients and improving their quality of life.