Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have developed an artificial skin that can provide prosthetic limbs with a sense of touch.
In a study published in the journal Science Robotics, a research team described in detail how their newly-developed artificial skin could restore a range of touch-based feelings into an amputee’s prosthetic limb.
The main aim of the research is giving patients the ability to feel pain through this new technology to help in alerting them about any potential damage to these prostheses.
To date, giving prostheses the ability to feel pain is one of the most challenging parts of developing the devices. To achieve this, the research team used a network of receptors that relayed the sensation to the brain as a biological template in designing the electronic skin.
“Pain is, of course, unpleasant, but it’s also an essential, protective sense of touch that is lacking in the prostheses that are currently available to amputees. Advances in prosthesis designs and control mechanisms can aid an amputee’s ability to regain lost function, but they often lack meaningful, tactile feedback or perception,” Luke Osborn, a graduate student researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.
The artificial skin, which the researchers call an e-dermis, reportedly conveys information to the patient through the stimulation of the peripheral nerves found in the arm, giving “life” to the prosthetic limbs. The e-dermis electrically stimulates the amputee’s nerves in a non-invasive manner and through the skin.
“For the first time, a prosthesis can provide a range of perceptions, from fine touch to noxious to an amputee, making it more like a human hand,” Nitish Thakor, co-founder of Infinite Biomedical Technologies whose prosthetic hardware was used in the study, said.
The e-dermis could allow amputees to feel a continuous “spectrum of tactile perceptions” ranging from light touch to painful stimulus. According to the study, it copies the touch and pain receptors of the human nervous system, letting the e-dermis encode sensations like the skin, but electronically.
The researchers are planning to develop their technology further, making it available for patients to use in the future.