We don't give much thought to it, but in the hierarchy of senses, the sense of touch holds a vital place. The near-instantaneous impulses of the peripheral nervous system make sure that we do not stand in harm's way, and even keep us from harming ourselves.
So, in an effort to make life easier for the sensorily less-abled, a team of researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) developed an artificial electronic skin that reacts to pain much like the real deal. This paves the way for smarter robotic applications, non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts, and most importantly, better prosthetics.
The invention mimics the lighting-fast sensory impulses sent to the brain via nerve pathways.
The lead researcher of the study Madhu Bhaskaran says that no electronic technology has been able to realistically mimic the sensation of pain, which only kicks in after a stimulus hits a certain threshold, whether it be something sharp, cold, or hot.
How exactly does it do these things?
The team utilized stretchable electronics that sense and respond to pressure and temperature.
Their latest functional prototype combines three technologies pioneered and patented by the same team. The first is stretchable electronics. They combined oxide materials with biocompatible silicon that can be made into a thin film that is bendable and unbreakable. The second is brain mimicking memory cells which imitate how the brain utilizes long-term memory to retain and recall information. And the third one is a coating that's reactive to temperature. These transform in shape in response to temperature changes, it's also a thousand times thinner than an average human hair.
Ph.D. MD Ataur Rahman explains to TechXplore, "We've essentially created the first electronic somatosensors (sōma meaning body in greek) replicating the key features of the body's complex system of neurons, neural pathways, and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli,"
He continues to note that previous technology that shot electrical signals to mimic varying levels of pain but only in the mechanical sense. This device also integrates pain resulting from temperature into the equation. As put by Rahman it means "[that] our artificial skin knows the difference between gently touching a pin with your finger or accidentally stabbing yourself with it—a critical distinction that has never been achieved before electronically."
The study was published in Advanced Intelligent Systems.