A group of scientists at Stanford University said that their plastic skin taps brain cells to deliver sense of touch, just like real skin does. The artificial material is expected to soon deliver pain and temperature signals directly into a patient’s brain.
Prof Zhenan Bao, lead author of the study, said that he has been working for more than a decade on creating artificial skin with a sense of touch and ability to self-heal. Bao and her fellow researchers plan to use the skin on prosthetic limbs that can restore patients’ full functionality.
So far, Bao’s artificial skin can only distinguish between the intensity of different pressures. For instance, it can detect the difference in pressure between a firm grip and a limp handshake.
Seventeen researchers were involved in the study, which was published this week in the journal science. Scientists explained that their ‘skin’ has two layers. The top layer detects pressure while the bottom layer converts that data into electrical signals that are transported to a certain area of the brain, where it translates the signals into biochemical stimuli.
Sensors used on the top layer can detect pressure just as human skin can. They can tell the difference between a firm grip and a light finger tap.
The findings are the result of 5-year-long research on how to use plastics as pressure sensors. Researchers were able to make a huge advance when they were able to measure the plastics’ natural ‘springiness.’ Next they were able to add an extra layer on plastics that increased their natural sensitivity to pressure.
Furthermore, the team embedded plastic with billions of nanoscale carbon tubes to increase sensitivity. When you add pressure to that plastic, the nanotubes get close together and can better conduct electrical signals.
This s how, the Stanford team was able to replicate human skin. Our skin translates pressure data into brief electrical signals to the brain at the pace of a Morse code.
If the pressure is higher, the nanotubes in artificial skin allow even more electrical signals to freely flow via the sensor to the sensing mechanism on the second layer of the synthetic skin. The short pulses received by the sensing mechanism cease when there is no pressure applied to the ‘skin.’
The sensing mechanism carries electrical pulses to the brain. The hardest part was making electrical pulses compatible with brain cells. The team made use of optogenesis, a mix between genetics and optics, which can create bioengineered brain cells that can ‘read’ specific frequencies of light and be turned on and off by these light pulses.
Image Source: Pixabay
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