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Scientists invent electronic skin that gives amputees sense of touch

A prototype of the electronic skin, which can sense pressure, temperature and strain (Stanford University)
A prototype of the electronic skin, which can sense pressure, temperature and strain (Stanford University)

Scientists have invented a type of electronic skin that can “talk directly to the brain”, allowing amputees to feel a human-like sense of touch through prosthetic limbs.

The ground-breaking artificial skin is embedded with sensors for temperature, pressure and strain, which are converted into electrical signals – similar to how nerve impulses communicate with the brain.

The wearable electronic circuit, known as a monolithic e-skin, was developed by a team from Stanford University, who detailed their breakthrough in a study published in the journal Science.

Stanford University’s Zhenan Bao, who was a senior author of the study, told The Independent that the next-generation technology could also be used to feel objects and sensations while controlling a robotic limb remotely.

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“We’ve been working on a monolithic e-skin for some time,” Professor Bao said. “The hurdle was not so much finding mechanisms to mimic the remarkable sensory abilities of human touch, but bringing them together using only skin-like materials.”

The electronic skin mimics the mechanoreceptors in the human skin to produce nerve-like communication with the brain (Stanford University)
The electronic skin mimics the mechanoreceptors in the human skin to produce nerve-like communication with the brain (Stanford University)

Weichen Wang, a doctoral candidate in Bao’s lab, added: “Much of that challenge came down to advancing the skin-like electronic materials so that they can be incorporated into integrated circuits with sufficient complexity to generate nerve-like pulse trains and low enough operating voltage to be used safely on the human body.”

A prototype of the e-skin, which is about the thickness of a piece of paper, is the first to combine all the desired electrical and mechanical features of human skin in a soft and durable form.

The team now plans to increase the scalability of the technology and develop an implantable chip to allow wireless communication through the body’s peripheral nerve.

Other recent research into electronic skin has focussed on robotics, aiming to provide robots with sensory feedback and physical self-awareness.

A team from the University of Edinburgh unveiled a device earlier this year that offered perceptive senses “similar to those of people and animals”.

A separate study in 2023 from engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) outlined a type of artificial skin capable of sensing toxic chemicals, which could allow robots to detect anything from pollution in rivers to nerve agents and biohazards.