Some prosthetic limbs are so advanced they can be controlled by the brain, but no bionic arm or leg will ever be truly be life-like until they have “skin” that can feel. This new artificial skin developed by a team of American and Korean researchers, for instance, has a dense network of sensors made of silicon and gold that mimic the sensitivity of real skin. The amount of sensors present is important, because as Roozbeh Ghaffari said: “If you have these sensors at high resolution across the finger, you can give the same tactile touch that the normal hand would convey to the brain.”
Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by an amputee’s thoughts or muscle movements already exist. But what if they could also sense the environment and then send that information back to the amputee’s nervous system? In order to create prosthetics that can function more like real body parts, scientists are designing artificial skins that pick up on tactile information. So far, these skins have gotten very good at sensing pressure—in fact, a skin designed by Stanford engineers is 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin. Another is self-healing. But a new skin built by researchers in South Korea may be the smartest artificial skin yet. It’s stretchy, like real skin, and it can sense pressure, temperature, and humidity. It even has a built-in heater so it feels like living tissue. The researchers tested the artificial skin on a prosthetic hand, and they hope that some day, it will interface with a patient’s nerves so amputees can feel everything the fake skin feels. “The prosthetic hand and laminated electronic skin could encounter many complex operations such as hand shaking, keyboard tapping, ball grasping, holding a cup of hot or cold drink, touching dry or wet surfaces and human to human contact,” they write in the paper, which was published today in Nature Communications.