‘Digital Skin’ gives prosthetics a sense of touch

A team of scientists developed a special “skin” that can be added to artificial limbs that may allow a person with a prosthetic hand to actually feel a handshake.

Up till now, prosthetic limbs may work wonders for restoring lost function in some amputees, but one thing they can’t do is restore an accurate sense of touch.

Using a two-ply of flexible, thin plastic, the scientists have created novel electronic sensors that send signals to the brain tissue of mice that closely mimic the nerve messages of touch sensors in human skin.

This method was inspired by natural mechanoreceptors; and researchers led by Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, set out to make sensors that churn out digital signals directly.

Researchers said in Science Magazine that it was challenging to be able to mimic the sensitivity of human skin which is designed by nature to be able to feel everything from a light breeze to getting hit by a flying ball.

After experimenting with numerous materials, they found that carbon nanotubes molded into pyramidal microstructures appeared to respond to a wide range of pressures.

They also changed the electrode setup and added another layer of flexible electronic devices, known as ring oscillators, which convert the electrical signals emerging from the touch sensitive pyramids to a stream of digital electrical pulses.

The upshot was that—just like the signals from natural mechanoreceptors—when more pressure is applied, the oscillators turn out pulses at a higher frequency.

In an interview, Bao, said the first applications of the technology could be very simple involving “skin-like sensors for wearable health monitoring applications.”

“Our devices can be mounted on skin like a piece of bandage and measure vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure,” she said.

In the future, she said, the technology could be used with prosthetics — allowing people with artificial limbs to feel sensation — or even robotics.

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The sensors can be seen attached to the fingertips of the prosthetic hand in this picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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