New electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain just like real skin

It can electronically replicate the way human skin senses pain.

A team at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, has developed electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain just like real skin. Currently, in the prototype phase, this artificial skin mimics the body’s near-instant feedback response and can respond to painful sensations with the same lighting speed that nerve signals travel to the brain.

As predicted by scientists, the device could pave the way towards better prosthetics, smarter robotics, and non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts. In other words, it is significant to advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics.

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

The functional prototypes developed by the RMIT University team deliver the key features of the skin's sensing capability in electronic form
The functional prototypes developed by the RMIT University team deliver the key features of the skin’s sensing capability in electronic form. Credit: RMIT University

Along with this pain-sensing prototype, scientists also created three other devices using stretchable electronics to sense and respond to temperature and pressure changes. These three prototypes were designed to deliver critical features of the skin’s sensing capability in electronic form.

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

Scientists used three different technologies:

  • Stretchable electronics: combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicon 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.

Ph.D. researcher Md Ataur Rahman said the memory cells in each prototype were responsible for triggering a response when the pressure, heat, or pain reached a set threshold.

“We’ve essentially created the first electronic somatosensory—replicating the key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways, and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli.”

“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 Australian Research Council supported this research.

Journal Reference:
  1. Artificial Somatosensors: Feedback receptors for electronic skins, Advanced Intelligent Systems, DOI: 10.1002/aisy.202000094

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