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Super-sensitive artificial skin developed

By Tim Sandle     Oct 17, 2015 in Science
Scientists have constructed an artificial skin that is so sensitive it can send a pressure sensation directly to a single brain cell.
Stanford university researchers have developed a plastic "skin." This artificial skin, which could one day be used in reconstructive surgery, is so sensitive that it can detect how hard it is being pressed. The skin generates an electric signal from a micro-input embedded in the skin, which can directly activate brain cell neurons.
Prosthetic limbs controlled by the brain have been at an advanced stage for years. However, to fully re-create a limb that can be fitted to an amputee sufficient to create a complete sensation of being "real," a sensitive coating or "skin" is required. An appropriate type of artificial skin will need to be able react to various tactile sensations, especially pressure. The types of plastics considered include ultrathin, single crystalline silicon nanoribbons.
Talking to Phys.org, Zhenan Bao, who heads up a research group at the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford, said that she is aiming to "create a flexible electronic fabric embedded with sensors that could cover a prosthetic limb and replicate some of skin's sensory functions."
To produce a skin that can inform the brain the difference between a light touch and firm handshake is the goal of Bao's current research and she has reported that her research team have made such a breakthrough. This remains something demonstrated on the laboratory bench, with the aim of one day integrating the skin with a prosthetic limb.
Key to this is forming a plastic composed of two layer. Layer one is a sensing mechanism; and layer two, positioned underneath, is an electronic circuit that sends signals, a bit like Morse code, to nerve cells in the brain. The sensing mechanism is made up of tiny springs. Over years these have been re-worked to make them increasingly sensitive to lighter and lighter pressure. These springs are described as a "wavy microstructure" and they extend like an accordion when stretched.
The most complex aspect is developing nerve cells that can recognize the signals. This required collaboration with biochemists. This was achieved by translating the electronic signals from the plastic skin to light pulses to activate neurons. This was achieved through a relatively new scientific field called optogenetics. Optogenetics is a biological technique which involves the use of light to control cells in living tissue.
Through such research endeavors scientists are edging closer to constructing a replacement skin so that amputees can feel everything that human skin would feel.
Bao's research has been published in the journal Science. The paper is titled "A skin-inspired organic digital mechanoreceptor."
More about artifical skin, Skin, sensation, Brain
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