What if the clothes you wear could gather, store and transmit digital information? This is what researchers at Ohio State University are working on in an effort to make the lives of patients a bit easier.

Brain implants are under development for the treatment of everything from epilepsy to addiction. However, they may require patients to wear external wiring to fully experience the benefits.

To eliminate the discomfort associated with this treatment, OSU researchers are embroidering circuits into fabric.

"A revolution is happening in the textile industry," said John Volakis, one of the researchers leading the investigational team. "We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing — and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring."

Right now, researchers are working on embroidering circuits with 0.1 mm precision, which is the ideal size for integrating sensors and computer memory devices. With continuous development, these circuits could eventually evolve into technology that allows people to monitor everything from fitness level to tissue healing — all through the clothes they're wearing.

These fabrics have been deemed "functional textiles," or "e-textiles." The clothing is developed with a standard sewing machine, but instead of utilizing everyday thread, fine silver metal wires are used. The researchers say it's just as soft to the touch as traditional thread.

"We started with a technology that is very well known — machine embroidery — and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes?" Volakis continued. "How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors? Now, for the first time, we've achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components."

A broadband antenna has already been stitched by the researchers, which may be essential in the future for cell phone and Internet access. It consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, stitched into a circle pattern. In total, the entire broadband antenna-stitching process takes about 15 minutes.

Syscom Advanced Materials has provided the threads used by researchers thus far, and the work is being funded by the National Science Foundation. Volakis and his team intend to continue development through a new phase of the project. 

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