While scientists have made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs over the last 25 years, two independent groups of researchers in America and Korea have taken the possibility of creating prosthetics that can also feel one step further by developing an artificial skin that contains both touch and heat sensors.
At the moment, people who need prosthetics can be fitted with sophisticated models that have a direct connection to the nervous system. This enables the prosthetic to read the brain signals that govern movements and translate them into the movements themselves, meaning that users can control the prosthetic limb simply by thinking about it. As you can imagine, this vastly improves their quality of life and helps them to regain some independence. However, scientists now hope to develop devices that will be able to provide sensory feedback too; a step which would lead to the prosthetic limb feeling more like part of the body.
Zhenan Bao and her team have developed a self-healing polymer that appears just like skin
For the last ten years, Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineer at Stanford, has been attempting to create electronic skin that can sense heat and touch. Together with her team, she has already developed a self-healing polymer that appears just like skin, plus skin that changes colour in line with the amount of pressure applied to it. Made from a plastic sheet containing two extremely thin layers, it can even discriminate between different touch sensations.
On the other side of the world, Korean researchers at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have been working on a skin-like material that can detect touch and heat simultaneously. Developed using a two layered ferroelectric material, it has microscopic ridges that enhance the stimuli as it’s detected in a similar way to our fingertips. In fact, it’s so sensitive that it even responds to droplets of water, or a hair being drawn across it, and can distinguish between a wide range of temperatures and pressures.
It’s hoped that ultimately these materials will be incorporated into prosthetic limbs and thus help users to not only regain movement, but their sense of touch too. However, this is a long term plan and in the meantime, the materials are being used in the development of wearable medical diagnostic tools, such as wristbands to monitor blood pressure.
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