While it’s difficult to define the qualia of pain, we all know the phenomenon when we feel it. Now, scientists at RMIT University in Australia say they’ve made an electronic “skin” that can sense pain too. Which may be useful for making new types of skin grafts, as well as smarter robots.
The scientists behind the skin have been working on it for years, and now say they have a functioning prototype. The team behind the prototype, led by Professor Madhu Bhaskaran at RMIT, recently published an analysis of its nascent prosthetic skin in Advanced Intelligent Systems.
“No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain—until now,” Bhaskaran said in an RMIT post that comes via Futurism. “Our artificial skin reacts instantly when pressure, heat or cold reach a painful threshold,” the professor added.
Amazing new tech from @madhu_bhaskaran & RMIT's always innovative @fun_materials group: electronic skin that reacts to pain just like real skin, for better prosthetics & smarter #robotics.— RMIT Research (@ResearchRMIT) September 1, 2020
➡️ Story: https://t.co/3GKudnIlsy
Published in @Advintellsyst | Supported by @arc_gov_au pic.twitter.com/xMRZrTdDrD
While the prototype has yet to be connected to a person’s nervous system, it’s still a proof of concept. The electronic skin acts as a genuine pain sensor by combining stretchable electronics, pressure sensors, heat sensors, and memory cells.
“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,” Bhaskaran said in RMIT’s post. The professor added that this means her team’s 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.”
In regards to the way it functions, the prototype skin works like real skin. Meaning the electronic tissue sends pain signals to a user’s brain when certain pressure and heat thresholds are passed. The skin’s electronic memory cells also imitate the way brains use long-term memory to recall previous sensory information.
In the future, Bhaskaran says doctors could use the artificial skin as a graft when standard approaches are not working. And while further development is necessary, Bhaskaran is confident the fundamentals for the tech, such as biocompatibility and skin-like stretchability, “are already there.”
What do you think about this electronic skin that can sense pain? Can you think of any uses for it not mentioned by Bhaskaran? Let’s talk futuristic dermas in the comments!
Feature image: RMIT University