Artificial Electronic Skin Senses Pain, Temperature As Fast As Human Skin

Electronic Skin Senses Pain
Image credit: RMIT University, Australia

Researchers at RMIT University in Australia have developed electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain just like human skin. The wearable sticker-like device can clear the way for better prosthetics, smarter robotics and noninvasive alternatives to skin grafts, according to a news release.

The device mimics 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, reports RMIT.

Lead researcher Professor Madhu Bhaskaran said the pain-sensing prototype was a significant advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics.

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“Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts,” Bhaskaran said. “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.”

In addition to the pain-sensing prototype device, the researchers also developed devices made with stretchable electronics that can sense and respond to changes in temperature and pressure.

A wearable patch
Image credit: RMIT University, Australia

Bhaskaran said three functional prototypes were designed to deliver key features of the skin’s sensing capability in electronic form.

The research team hopes that with further development, the stretchable artificial skin could replace skin grafts in cases where a traditional approach might not be feasible.

“We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals – biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability – are already there,” Bhaskaran said.

Read more NUS Scientists Develop Electronic Skin with Exceptional Sense of Touch for Prosthetics

The new research, published in Advanced Intelligent Systems and filed as a provisional patent, combines three technologies previously pioneered and patented by the team:

  • Stretchable electronics: combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicone 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.

The pressure sensor prototype combines stretchable electronics and long-term memory cells, the heat sensor brings together temperature-reactive coatings and memory, while the pain sensor integrates all three technologies.

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Cathy Russey () is Online Editor at WT | Wearable Technologies and specialized in writing about the latest medical wearables and enabling technologies on the market. Cathy can be contacted at info(at)wearable-technologies.com.