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Innovation could change lives of people taking mental health meds

Currently patients on lithium drugs have to get invasive and time-consuming blood tests every one to three months.

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a man holds his fingertips together
The new sensor measured this person’s lithium levels before and after taking medication. (Toasted Pictures/Shutterstock)

By Pol Allingham via SWNS

A tiny sweat sensor that can detect lithium levels through the touch of a finger could change the lives of people taking the drug for bipolar disorder and depression.

Scientists at the University of California have invented a sensor smaller than a thumbtack that can detect lithium in sweat from a fingertip in just 30 seconds, replacing intrusive hospital visits with seamless medication monitoring.

There is a fine line between lithium working and causing toxicity, meaning patients on the drug have to get invasive and time-consuming blood tests every one to three months depending on their doctor’s verdict, leading scientists to turn from blood to sweat.

They hope to add a visual interface to the tech that will show the patient exactly what’s going on inside.

The research team said patients often struggle to take the drug as prescribed, sometimes missing pills, meaning it’s important for health care professionals to know how much people are actually swallowing to prevent an overdose.

Moderate overdoses cause diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, muscle weakness and tremors, and symptoms can increase to confusion, agitation, uncontrollable eye movements, giddiness and low blood pressure.

And in rare instances, often caused by co-existing health conditions, high doses of lithium can lead to coma, heart failure, seizures and kidney failure, according to Medical News Today.

Principal investigator Dr. Sam Emaminejad, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said: “Through a single touch, our new device can obtain clinically useful molecular-level information about what is circulating in the body.

“We already interact with a lot of touch-based electronics, such as smartphones and keyboards, so this sensor could integrate seamlessly into daily life.”

Dr. Shuyu Lin, a student researcher, said: “Although it may not be visible, the human body constantly produces sweat, often only in very small amounts.

“Small molecules derived from medication, including lithium, show up in that sweat. We recognized this as an opportunity to develop a new type of sensor that would detect these molecules.”

The team also plans to take their invention beyond lithium. Dr. Emaminejad is developing a similar touch-based sensor to monitor alcohol and acetaminophen, otherwise known as Tylenol.

These inventions could include additional features, such as fingerprint security encryption, or, for substances prone to abuse, a robotic system that only releases medication if the patient has a low level in their bloodstream.

But the lithium project was not without technical challenges.

Sweat is only produced in minute amounts, but the electrochemical sensing to detect lithium needs a watery environment.

To combat this the team created a water-based gel containing glycerol, the added glycerol stopping the gel from drying out.

An ion-selective electrode was applied to the gel to trap the lithium ions in the liquid.

These ions generate a difference in electrical potential from a base-level electrode, and judging this difference unveils the concentration of lithium in the sweat.

The whole process is contained in one tiny rectangular sensor, smaller than the head of a thumbtack that will complete the test in 30 seconds.

After testing the sensor using an artificial fingertip, the team turned to real people to see what happened, including one who took lithium as treatment.

They measured this person’s lithium levels before and after taking medication.

The findings were presented at the American Chemical Society (ACS) conference in Chicago.

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