Electro-mechano responsive properties of gelatin methacrylate (GelMA) hydrogel on conducting polymer electrodes quantified using atomic force microscopy
Electrical stimulation of hydrogels has been performed to enable micro-actuation or controlled movement of ions and biomolecules such as in drug release applications. Hydrogels are also increasingly used as low modulus, biocompatible coatings on electrode devices and thus are exposed to the effects of electrical stimulation. As such, there is growing interest in the latter, especially on the dynamic and nanoscale physical properties of hydrogels. Here, we report on the electro-mechano properties of photocrosslinkable gelatin methacrylate (GelMA) hydrogel applied as coatings on conducting polymer polypyrrole-dodecylbenze sulfonate (PPy-DBSA) electrodes. In particular, Electrochemical-Atomic Force Microscopy (EC-AFM) was used to quantify the nanoscale actuation and dynamic changes in Young's modulus as the GelMA coating was electrically stimulated via the underlying PPy-DBSA electrode. Pulsed electrical stimulation was shown to induce dynamic expansion and contraction, or nanoscale actuation, of the GelMA hydrogel due to the reversible ingress of electrolyte ions and associated changes in osmotic pressure during oxidation and reduction of the PPy-DBSA film. In addition, dynamic changes in the Young's modulus of up to 50% were observed in the hydrogel and correlated with the actuation process and ion diffusion during oxidation and reduction of the underlying PPy-DBSA film. These dynamic properties were investigated for hydrogels with varying degrees of cross-linking, porosity and modulus, the latter ranging from ≈0.2–1 kPa. The study demonstrates an AFM-based approach to quantify the dynamic physical properties of hydrogels, which are shown to be modulated via electrical stimulation. This can enable a better understanding of the electro-mechano mechanisms that are important for the controlled release of drugs or controlling cell interactions at the hydrogel–cell interface.