Life can already be painful enough. Apparently, researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, don’t think so. They recently created an artificial skin that is capable of sensing and reacting to pain just like human skin.
In seriousness, the team has lofty goals for its innovation. They want to improve prosthetics and skin grafts by giving people the ability to sense their environment. The team also suggests that the artificial skin could “augment or compensate human skin for the development of realistic humanoids.”
Their research was published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems on Tuesday.
I’ve Got a (Artificial) Feeling
Recreating a sensation as complex as pain is no easy task. Although no one wants to feel pain, it is an extremely helpful sensory tool that lets humans safely navigate the world. Those with prosthetic limbs lose that ability.
The pain-sensing artificial skin created by RMIT researchers mimics the nerve pathways in the human body that connect the skin to the brain.
“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,” says lead researcher Madhu Bhaskaran. “No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain—until now.”
The new device is able to measure changes in pressure and temperature (both heat and cold). When a certain threshold is crossed, the artificial skin reacts just like human skin. Researchers created three prototypes and each one is responsible for sensing pain, temperature, or pressure. Combined, the trio is able to replicate the various sensing capabilities of human skin.
Ataur Rahman, another researcher on the team, says, “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,” he adds.
Importantly, the device is able to transmit signals at the same near-instant speed as nerves in the human body.
This breakthrough could have massive implications for both healthcare and robotics. The latter would benefit from sensors that are able to detect when bots are in danger, allowing them to react accordingly. Since the artificial skin could communicate electronically with a robot it won’t be difficult to engineer this type of application.
Interfacing the artificial skin with the human nervous system is more challenging. That being said, the groundwork needed to do so is already present.
Bhaskaran says, “We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals—biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability—are already there.”
Artificial skin sensors probably won’t be around in the real world for some time. That doesn’t make the RMIT team’s progress any less significant. Their devices will help pave the way for smarter prosthetics and skin grafts in the future.