Electronic Skin That Reacts To Pain Like Human Skin
A team of researchers at RMIT University have developed a new pain-sensing prototype of the skin can mimic the body’s feedback response and reacts to painful sensations with the same speed that nerve signals travel to the brain; this marks a significant advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies, smart prosthetics and even intelligent robots.
“Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts,” said lead researcher Professor Madhu Bhaskaran. “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,” said Bhaskaran.
In addition to this pain-sensing skin prototype, this team has also developed devices using stretchable electronics that can not only sense but respond to changes in temperature and pressure. With further development, this stretchable artificial skin could be an option for non-invasive skin grafts when traditional approaches are not a viable option or are not working in the future.
“We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals — biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability — are already there,” Bhaskaran said.
The report published in Advanced Intelligent Systems which has also been filed as a provisional patent describes the combination of 3 technologies that were previously patented as pioneered by the team which includes:
- Stretchable electronics: combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicon to deliver transparent, unbreakable and wearable electronics as thin as a sticker.
- Temperature-reactive coatings: self-modifying coatings 1,000 times thinner than a human hair based on a material that transforms in response to heat.
- Brain-mimicking memory: electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and retain previous information.
“We’ve essentially created the first electronic somatosensors — replicating the key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli,” said Ph.D. researcher Md Ataur Rahman.
“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. It means 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,” explains Rahman.