We don’t think much about it, but in the hierarchy of the senses, the sense of touch holds a vital place.
The almost instantaneous impulses of the peripheral nervous system ensure, that we are not in danger, and even prevent us from harming ourselves.
So, in an effort to make life easier for people with sensory impairments, a team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), has developed an artificial electronic skin, that responds to pain like the real deal.
This can find new ways of application for smarter robotic applications, non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts, and, most importantly, better prosthetics.
The device mimics the rapid sensory impulses to light sent to the brain via the nerve pathways.
The principal investigator of the study Madhu Bhaskaran claims that no electronic technology has been able to realistically mimic the sensation of pain, which is only triggered after a stimulus has achieved a certain threshold, whether being something sharp, cold, or hot.
How exactly does it do these things?
The team used expandable electronics that sense and respond to pressure and temperature.
Their latest functional prototype combines three technologies developed and patented by the same team. The first is expandable electronics.
They combined oxide materials with biocompatible silicon, which can be made into a thin film that is pliable and shatterproof.
The second is the brain which mimics memory cells that mimic how the brain uses long term memory to retain, and remember information. And the third is a coating that reacts to temperature.
These transform into shape in response to changes in temperature, they are also a thousand times thinner than the average human hair.
Ph.D. Md Ataur Rahman said to TechXplore that they essentially created the electronic somatosensory (sōma meaning body in ancient Greek), reproducing key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways, and receptors that determine our perception of sensory stimuli.
He continues to note that the previous technology, that sent electrical signals to mimic different levels of pain but only in the mechanical sense. This device also incorporates the pain, resulting from temperature into the equation.
Rahman claims 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 made electronically before.”
The study was published in Advanced Intelligent Systems.