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Electronic skin could soon give those with prosthetics a sense of touch and feel

In this video, provided by Bao Research Group at Stanford University, chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao discusses how artificial pressure-sensing skin can communicate with brain cells. The skin is made of plastic electronic materials on flexible substrates. The engineers envision that this approach could inspire technologies to medically restore a natural sense of touch.

Engineers have taken an important step toward providing something missing from prosthetic limbs – the sense of touch.

“We made artificial skin that can sense touch and generate electrical signals that can communicate with the brain, it’s made of all plastic materials,” Zhenan Bao, professor at Stanford University explained.

The material can detect pressure and send messages or signals to the brain, even allowing the user to tell if a handshake is firm or not.

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Model robotic hand with artificial mechanoreceptors
Model robotic hand with artificial mechanoreceptors Bao Research Group/Stanford University

“This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system,” said Bao.

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There have been significant technological advancements in the area of prosthetic and robotic limbs in terms of usability – this is the first artificial touch system to produce digital signals.

Artificial mechanoreceptors mounted on the fingers of a model robotic hand.

Artificial mechanoreceptors mounted on the fingers of a model robotic hand.

Digitizing touch

According to Stanford, “the heart of the technique is a two-ply plastic construct: the top layer creates a sensing mechanism and the bottom layer acts as the circuit to transport electrical signals and translate them into biochemical stimuli compatible with nerve cells. The top layer in the new work featured a sensor that can detect pressure over the same range as human skin, from a light finger tap to a firm handshake.”

Bao led a team of 16 who have been working on the project for close to 10 years. Their research was published in the journal Science.

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“We have a lot of work to take this from experimental to practical applications,” Bao said. “But after spending many years in this work, I now see a clear path where we can take our artificial skin.”

Stretchable skin with flexible artificial mechanoreceptors
Stretchable skin with flexible artificial mechanoreceptors Bao Research Group/Stanford University