New Alcohol-Monitoring Implant Will Report If You’re Drinking

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New Alcohol-Monitoring Implant Will Report If You’re Drinking

By Paul Fuhr 04/25/18

Developers say the chip could be useful for monitoring the alcohol intake of participants in treatment and diversion programs.

Image: 
man drinking a beer

Researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have developed an alcohol-monitoring implant that can report, with a high degree of accuracy, when someone is drinking when they’re not supposed to be, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

At one cubic millimeter in size, the biosensor is easily implanted under the skin (with no surgery required) and is powered by wearable devices like smartwatches. The sensor, coated with an enzyme, releases a chemical whenever it detects alcohol in someone’s system.

That chemical then sends out a wireless electrical signal to whomever needs to know, such as parole officers, doctors, or AA sponsors. The idea behind the monitoring chip is nothing new, given the existence of blood tests, breathalyzers and temporary tattoos that measure alcohol levels.

SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring) bracelets are also regularly used, which are fitted on someone’s ankle. UCSD researchers are adamant that their biosensor is a huge improvement over existing tech, calling SCRAM bracelets “clunky and sometimes embarrassing.”

“Right now this chip could be useful for alcohol monitoring during treatment or diversion programs,” said Drew Hall, the device’s head engineer. “However, this is a platform technology that we feel can be expanded to many other areas of substance abuse treatment and monitoring, and ultimately other disease monitoring.”

Hall noted that the most difficult part of the device’s development process was its size.

“Despite having a lab full of equipment for my other research projects, we had to buy several pieces of highly specialized equipment for this project simply due to the size and handling constraints,” he said.

In addition to the chip’s size, its lifetime is another concern for researchers, too. Some types of biosensors, such as those that measure glucose levels, generally last about two years.

The UCSD team is aiming for that same lifespan with their chip, adding that their device consumes a “tiny amount of power—970 nanowatts, about a million times less than the power a smartphone uses to make a phone call.”

That’s important, the team says, because it reduces the risk of the device overheating inside the body.

However, Mike Delaney, a UK addiction counselor, is concerned about the device’s role in society. “I believe that alcohol monitoring systems only have a use if they are a small part of a support plan for people trying to recover from alcohol addiction,” Delaney told Smithsonian.

He thinks that UCSD’s biosensor would work best as part of a rehab program.

“My concern about the implantable device is that it becomes a legal deterrent against people who have committed alcohol or drug related crimes and is used as part of a sentence thereby becoming punishment rather than treatment,” he says. “Addiction needs to be treated as a health issue and not a criminal issue.”

There’s still, however, a long way to go before the device reaches the public. The UCSD research team will next carry out studies on animals and, if all goes well, they will move on to human trials. 

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