Feb. 17, 2023

UCalgary researchers develop wearable patch to monitor links between sweat and stress levels

Team hopes to find differences in acute and chronic stress to help personalize stress management
Sweat Sensor 1
Researchers at the University of Calgary are developing sensors to help link sweat and cortisol to stress in healthy people and concussion patients. Trevor Alberts

We all feel stress, whether it’s in our everyday lives or in specific situations. We also know that stress has an impact on our physical and mental health.

While mindfulness, guided breathing and heart-rate variability have become major topics of discussion in reducing stress, doctors have been working on ways to personalize how stress can be monitored.

A multidisciplinary team of University of Calgary researchers has developed a wearable patch that helps find a correlation between sweat levels and human stress levels.

“We are putting the patches on concussion patients and monitoring their stress levels during their recovery and in response to  personalized exercise, aiming to understand how stress affects disease recovery,” says Dr. Amir Sanati-Nezhad, PhD, associate professor in the Schulich School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“In addition to the wearable microfluidics, we also developed biosensors that can monitor stress biomarkers like lactate and cortisol.”

In a newly published report, he says the sensor is being integrated into the patch and will be part of the next version of the wearable device.

Multidisciplinary approach

Sanati-Nezhad says the team’s work began after reviewing literature that showed how development of technology for measuring stress directly from stress markers in sweat was still in its early stages.

Through collaboration with Dr. Jaideep Bains, PhD, at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and with the support of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), he hired a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Shaghayegh Shajari, PhD’20, to develop and test the patch, while Dr. David Rosenegger, BSc’01, PhD’09, helped apply for more funding to launch a spinoff company, SenseSi.

After six months of brainstorming and another year of building, a prototype was created in his BioMEMS lab.

“Our microsweat kit reliably collects the perspiration during sweat generation with no evaporation or mixing of the old and new perspiration, preserving the concentration of molecules,” Sanati-Nezhad says. “Almost all existing sweat wearable devices published before cannot preserve the sweat content before characterizing its content.”

Extending UCalgary’s concussion research

Working with concussion patients was the direct result of conversations Sanati-Nezhad had with his colleague, Dr. Chantel Debert, MSc’03, MD’06, a lead concussion clinician-scientist at the CSM’s HBI.

“There is nothing more interesting than monitoring stress levels in concussion patients, as they are used to using treadmills for walking and running, and they normally generate sweat,” he says. “Concussion recovery usually occurs within one to three months post-injury, so this short window is an ideal period for showcasing the efficacy of this technology.”

Sanati-Nezhad says UCalgary has a history of strong concussion research with extensive access to concussion patients, which will allow his team to link their data with that of other research teams.

No horsing around

Thinking about the research through a multidisciplinary lens, the team isn’t just looking at the link between sweat and stress in humans.

Dr. Amin Komeili, PhD, an associate professor in the Schulich School of Engineering, says the device could prove to be useful as he focuses his work on animal health, specifically horses.

“The trend is the same: increase the stress level and that means an increase in the concentration of cortisol in sweat,” he says. “It’s at a different concentration, so we would need to recalibrate the sensor to be able to use it for animals.”

Komeili says early detection and monitoring of stress is an important starting point in preventing and treating diseases.

Passing more tests

Looking ahead, Sanati-Nezhad says the researchers will continue to compare the wearable cortisol data with the blood cortisol data of their patients to assess any further links.

He says they are also testing the sensors integrated with the microsweat patch in the lab to evaluate its performance.

“We are also developing a new protocol of making microneedles that can collect the sweat from skin layers with minimal invasion in a longer period than walking on treadmills, without a need for physical activity,” Sanati-Nezhad says. “The integration of these microneedles with our patches enables continuous cortisol or other stress markers detection for almost all populations.”

He says the team is also interested in seeing if they can find differences between acute stress and chronic stress, which will help personalize stress management even further.

Sanati-Nezhad adds the technology use is not limited to monitoring stress levels, as it can easily be adopted for the detection of other biomolecule markers, such as for monitoring diabetes patients.

The Integrated Concussion Research Program (ICRP) is a university-wide initiative to study concussion, bringing together experts from the Cumming School of MedicineFaculty of Kinesiology, and Faculty of Arts, with support from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI).Community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation funded the creation of the ICRP and provide continuing support.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.

The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education is the Mental Health arm of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and employs a multidisciplinary approach to advancing research and education on early identification, treatment and prevention of mental illness.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians. With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.

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