Researchers have developed an electronic artificial skin prototype that reacts to pain just like real skin, opening the way to better prosthetics, smarter robotics, and non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts. The device, developed at RMIT University, Australia, can react to painful sensations with the same speed that nerve signals travel to the brain.
Lead researcher Professor Madhu Bhaskaran, PhD, said the pain-sensing prototype was a significant advance toward next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics.
“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,” Bhaskaran said. “No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain until now. Our artificial skin reacts instantly when pressure, heat, or cold reach a painful threshold. It’s a critical step forward in the future development of the sophisticated feedback systems that we need to deliver truly smart prosthetics and intelligent robotics.”
As well as the pain-sensing prototype, the research team also developed devices made with stretchable electronics that can sense and respond to changes in temperature and pressure.
Bhaskaran, co-leader of the Functional Materials and Microsystems group at RMIT, said the functional prototypes were designed to deliver key features of the skin’s sensing capability in electronic form.
“We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals—biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability—are already there,” she said.
The new research, filed as a provisional patent, combines three technologies previously pioneered and patented by the team:
· Stretchable electronics: combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicone to deliver transparent, unbreakable, and wearable electronics as thin as a sticker.
· Temperature-reactive coatings: self-modifying coatings 1,000 times thinner than a human hair based on a material that transforms in response to heat.
· Brain-mimicking memory: electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and retain previous information.
The pressure-sensor prototype combines stretchable electronics and long-term memory cells, the heat sensor brings together temperature-reactive coatings and memory, and the pain sensor integrates all three technologies.
“We’ve essentially created the first electronic somatosensors—replicating the key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways, and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli,” said PhD researcher Md Ataur Rahman. “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. It means 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.”
The open-access study, Artificial Somatosensors: Feedback Receptors for Electronic Skins, was published in Advanced Intelligent Systems.
Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by RMIT University.