Tattoos of the future may be much more than just decorative statements.

They may be able to tell you what’s happening inside your body.

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Harvard Medical School, have developed tattoo ink that changes color in response to changes in the body.

Three different inks have been developed that change color in response to changing pH levels, sodium levels, and blood sugar levels.

Although the project, called Dermal Abyss, is in the earliest stages of research, the applications of the technology could be broad.

“The concept of utilizing biosensing tattoos offers an attractive alternative for health monitoring in vivo for a range of medical complications, including diabetes, acidosis, alkalosis, electrolyte imbalance, and hypertension,” the researchers write.

A potential aid in diabetes management

The ink that senses changes in blood sugar turns from blue to brown as blood sugar levels rise.

It could be particularly useful for people living with diabetes who are required to regularly check their blood sugar levels.

“Diabetes management involves constantly thinking about the disease, which can lead to a sense of burnout. One of the hardest things about type 1 diabetes is that it is, in a sense, ‘always there’,” Dr. Elvira Isganaitis, a research associate and endocrinologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Massachusetts, told Healthline.

“People with diabetes have to adjust their insulin doses every single time they eat, every time they exercise, every time they have a cold or a fever,” Isganaitis explained. “If they don’t account for these factors in the right way, they may have dramatic shifts in their blood glucose levels, and both high and low levels are potentially dangerous and associated with uncomfortable symptoms.”

In the United States, 30 million people of all ages have diabetes. That’s about 9 per cent of the population. Of those, 7 million people are undiagnosed.

In 2012 — the most recent data available — the estimated total direct and indirect cost of diagnosed diabetes in the United States was $245 billion.

Average medical expenditures among those with diagnosed diabetes is roughly 2.3 times higher than for people without diabetes.

Current tests are time-consuming

People living with diabetes measure their blood glucose levels by using a sharp lancing device to prick their finger and take a small drop of blood.

The blood is applied to a testing strip in a handheld device that displays blood glucose levels.

Isganaitis says people with type 1 diabetes typically check their blood glucose levels four to 10 times per day.

Those with type 2 diabetes and are not on insulin may only check once or twice per day, but those being treated with insulin need to check more often.

A recent breakthrough in blood glucose monitoring was the development of continuous glucose monitor (CGM) devices, which are worn beneath the skin for a week or two at a time and provide real time updates of glucose levels every five minutes.

“CGM doesn’t completely eliminate the need for finger-stick blood glucose checking since the devices still need to be calibrated against blood glucose levels, but they have allowed some patients to cut back on their finger sticks without deterioration in their blood glucose control,” Isganaitis said.

Dr. Alvin C. Powers, president of medicine and science at the American Diabetes Association and director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center, said the possibility of using tattoos in the future to monitor blood sugar levels is a promising step.

“We need simple, easy, and accurate ways to measure the blood glucose,” Powers told Healthline. “Such an approach would be useful in many individuals with diabetes, and especially children. Hopefully, these new technologies will allow people with diabetes to measure their blood with greater ease, convenience, and simplicity.”

Hope for the future

The Dermal Abyss project, however, may be a long way from clinical use.

“Challenges such as robustness, biocompatibility, permanence, and reversibility must be addressed before animal or human subject trials,” the researchers reported.

But the initial stages of the research have been encouraging.

“The results of our study show that this approach is promising and offers a novel direction for further biotechnology development,” the researchers said.

Susan Babey, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Health Policy Research. She said that although clinical use of tattoos that measure blood glucose levels may be far in the future, the potential benefit for people with diabetes is significant.

“Any technology that facilitates glucose monitoring and provides more options for people with diabetes is helpful,” Babey told Healthline. “This increases the chances that more patients will find a monitoring method with which they are comfortable and that makes it more likely that they will regularly monitor blood glucose levels.”