It is yet another milestone crossed in the field of prosthetic as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology developed a prototype device that can electronically replicate the way human skin senses pain, at its Micro-Nano Research Facility. “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,” says Professor Madhu Bhaskaran, co-leader of the Functional Materials and Microsystems group at RMIT
An electronic form of the critical features of the human skin ensued from the combination of the above-mentioned pain sensing prototype along with the following three technologies:
(1) Electronically stretchable devices – also known as elastic electronics are generally made by embedding electronic devices onto stretchable substrates like polyurethanes and silicones – such a circuit can withstand large amounts of strain without any signs of failure. The device made by the RMIT team used a combination of oxide materials with biocompatible silicon to deliver transparent, unbreakable, and wearable electronics as thin as a sticker.
(2) Brain-mimicking memory: Utilisation of electronic memory cells capable of successfully emulating the human brain’s ability to use long-term memory for recalling and retaining previous information.
(3) Temperature-reactive coatings: Thermochromic materials are those substances which change their form on exposure to/ in response to heat. The device used such substances which were not only self-modifying in nature but were also about 1,000 times thinner than the human hair.
The stretchable skin could open a new door in the future for non-invasive skin grafts, particularly during procedures where the traditional method is neither successful nor viable.
“We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals – biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability – are already there,” Bhaskaran said.
The device though still in its prototype stage can now trigger a response when the pain, pressure or heat exceed a certain set threshold.
Ph.D. researcher Md Ataur Rahman said,” While some existing technologies have used electrical signals to mimic different pain levels, 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.”
The research supported by the Australian Research Council is the first electronic somatosensory that is capable of replicating the complex system of neurons, neural pathways and the receptors driving our perception of sensory stimuli.