Are James Bond-type microchips the next wave of alcohol monitoring technologies? Scientists at the University of California San Diego seem to think so. These engineering researchers are hoping that an injectable microchip that monitors drinking will help treatment programs improve outcomes.
Monitoring Alcohol Consumption Beneath the Skin
In April, engineers at the UC San Diego announced the development of a miniature biosensor designed to be implanted beneath the skin to monitor alcohol consumption in humans. The injectable chip measures one cubic millimeter and is powered by a wearable device, like a smartwatch. It works when alcohol interacts with an enzyme coating, which then generates a byproduct that can be electrochemically detected. These electrical signals are transmitted wirelessly, indicating the presence of alcohol.
“The ultimate goal of this work is to develop a routine, unobtrusive alcohol and drug monitoring device for patients in substance abuse treatment programs,” said Drew Hall, an electrical engineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the leader of the project. “A tiny injectable sensor—that can be administered in a clinic without surgery—could make it easier for patients to follow a prescribed course of monitoring for extended periods of time,” Hall said during the technology’s announcement.
The New Frontier of Personal Alcohol Monitoring?
For decades, alcohol monitoring technology has been designed primarily for community corrections to ensure offenders convicted of alcohol-related crimes remain sober. However, in recent years, there’s been increasing interest in developing monitoring for treatment and even personal use.
For example, in 2016, the UC San Diego team announced the development of a disposable temporary “tattoo” that is worn on the skin and collects blood-alcohol readings from the wearer’s sweat. The downside to this technology is that it’s single-use and easily removable with just one pull. Other types of monitoring technology, more akin to fitness bands, help wearers track their alcohol consumption via a wrist-worn monitor. These devices are lower-profile and less expensive compared to more commercial-grade alcohol testing, making them more practical for personal use, such as helping people track their alcohol consumption during a night out with friends.
However, these devices still rely on the wearer to remember to use them, and in a treatment setting wearers may be tempted to tamper with them to cover up a drinking relapse. An injectable alcohol monitoring chip could address those concerns.
While the work of the UC San Diego team is compelling, the chip has only been tested in vitro and many stages of testing and possible legal hurdles—likely lasting years—will be required before it can advance to general use. Moreover, critics question how many people will agree to have a microchip injected into their bodies. Given a choice between a wearable device or a microchip that is implanted under your skin, which would you choose?