An electronic skin has been created which responds to pain in the same way as the real-life organ.
Replicating the instantaneous and severe reaction to pain has long been a goal of academics who hope to create lifelike prosthetics and improved skin grafts.
The breakthrough from academics at RMIT University in Australia replicates human nerves with electrical signals to trigger an immediate reaction.
Lead researcher Professor Madhu Bhaskaran said the prototype was a significant advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics.
‘Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts,’ Professor 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.
‘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.’
Details of the skin substitute have been published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems and filed as a provisional patent.
The nifty electrical trickery used to create the first true pain-sensing skin is a combination of three prototype devices previously created by the team.
One was a structural development involving stretchable electronics which provided strength to the material despite being transparent and thin.
The others were coatings 1,000 times thinner than a human hair that respond to heat and electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain retains previous information on potential hazards.
Three prototype have been made, one which combines the pressure sensor prototype with stretchable electronics and long-term memory cells.
One merges the heat sensor with temperature-reactive coatings and memory. The third managed to integrate all three technologies.
PhD 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 somatosensors – replicating the key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli,’ he said.
‘While some existing technologies have used electrical signals to mimic different levels of pain, 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.’