This new artificial skin can sense changes in pressure, heat, and cold. This artificial skin could lead to more advanced prosthetics and robots. (Image credit: RMIT University)


Though it’s unpleasant, pain is necessary because it helps keep us safe, warning us when our body is in discomfort. Now, researchers have created an artificial skin that can react to pain similar to real human skin. The prototype, created by a team at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, mimics the body’s nerve pathways that connect to receptors in the skin to the brain that react to painful sensations.


The thin artificial skin can sense changes in pressure, heat, or cold. When it reaches a certain point, it will react just like human skin. The team also made two other prototypes: one made out of a thinner, stretchy material that responds to changes in temperature, and an extremely thin coating that is 1,000 times thinner than a single human hair that transforms in response to heat.


The new research combines three previous technologies created by the team: stretchable electronics made of oxide materials and biocompatible silicon, temperature-reactive coatings, and brain-mimicking memory that imitates the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and keep previous information.

“Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts,” research lead Madhu Bhaskaran and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.


“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,” he explained. “No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain — until now.”


Researchers believe this prototype is the next step towards new biomedical technologies and intelligent robots. They hope the artificial skin can improve prosthetics and lead to better alternatives to skin grafts. They even think it can be used for the development of realistic humanoids, which is kind of creepy when you think about it. And though there are some existing technologies that use electrical signals to mimic pain, these prototypes can react to actual pressure, temperature, and pain.


RMIT researcher and lead author Ataur Rahman says, “… 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.”


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