A research team at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, has developed electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain. This new technology could lead to more realistic prosthetics, smarter robotics, and non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts.
The prototype of the electronic artificial skin can electronically replicate the way human skin senses pain by mimicking the body’s near-instant feedback response and can react to painful sensations with the same lighting speed that nerve signals travel to the brain.
Lead researcher, Professor Madhu Bhaskaran said the pain-sensing prototype was a significant advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics. Bhaskaran said: “Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts. We’re sensing things all the time through the skin, but our pain response only kicks in at a certain point, like when we touch something too hot or too sharp.
“No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain – until now. Our artificial skin reacts instantly when pressure, heat, or cold reach a painful threshold. It’s a critical step forward in the future development of the sophisticated feedback systems that we need to deliver truly smart prosthetics and intelligent robotics.”
The process of creating electronic artificial skin
Bhaskaran’s research paper, published in Advanced Intelligent Systems, discusses how the technology combines three technologies previously developed by the team. The first of which, stretchable electronics, combines oxide materials with biocompatible silicone to deliver transparent, unbreakable, and wearable electronics as thin as a sticker. Temperature-reactive coatings were also applied to the new technology. This self-modifying coating is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair and is based on a material that transforms in response to heat. Finally, the team used brain-mimicking memory, which utilises electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and retain previous information.
PhD researcher Dr Ataur Rahman said the memory cells in each prototype were responsible for triggering a response when the pressure, heat or pain reached a set threshold. He said: “While some existing technologies have used electrical signals to mimic different levels of pain, these new devices can react to real mechanical pressure, temperature and pain, and deliver the right electronic response.”