Scientists have created an electronic skin that can lend a sense of touch to prosthetics or robotic limbs, allowing amputees to regain sensation. Made of fabric and rubber laced with sensors to mimic nerve endings, e-dermis recreates a sense of touch as well as pain by sensing stimuli and relaying the impulses back to the peripheral nerves.
“We’ve made a sensor that goes over the fingertips of a prosthetic hand and acts like your own skin would,” said Luke Osborn, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University in the US. “It’s inspired by what is happening in human biology, with receptors for both touch and pain,” said Osborn. “We can have a prosthetic hand that is already on the market and fit it with an e-dermis that can tell the wearer whether he or she is picking up something that is round or whether it has sharp points,” he said.
The work – published in the journal Science Robotics – shows that it is possible to restore a range of natural, touch-based feelings to amputees who use prosthetic limbs. The ability to detect pain could be useful, for instance, not only in prosthetic hands but also in lower limb prostheses, alerting the user to potential damage to the device. Human skin contains a complex network of receptors that relay a variety of sensations to the brain. The network provided a biological template for the research team.
Bringing a more human touch to modern prosthetic designs is critical, especially when it comes to incorporating the ability to feel pain, Osborn said. “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,” he said. “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,” he said.
That is where the e-dermis comes in, conveying information to the amputee by stimulating peripheral nerves in the arm, making the so-called phantom limb come to life. The e-dermis device does this by electrically stimulating the amputee’s nerves in a non-invasive way, through the skin, said Nitish Thakor, a professor at Johns Hopkins. “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,” said Thakor.
Inspired by human biology, the e-dermis enables its user to sense a continuous spectrum of tactile perceptions, from light touch to noxious or painful stimulus.
The team created a “neuromorphic model” mimicking the touch and pain receptors of the human nervous system, allowing the e-dermis to electronically encode sensations just as the receptors in the skin would. Tracking brain activity via electroencephalography, or EEG, the team determined that the test subject was able to perceive these sensations in his phantom hand. The researchers then connected the e-dermis output to the volunteer by using a noninvasive method known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS.
In a pain-detection task, the team determined that the test subject and the prosthesis were able to experience a natural, reflexive reaction to both pain while touching a pointed object and non-pain when touching a round object. The e-dermis is not sensitive to temperature – for this study, the team focused on detecting object curvature (for touch and shape perception) and sharpness (for pain perception). The e-dermis technology could be used to make robotic systems more human, and it could also be used to expand or extend to astronaut gloves and space suits, Osborn said.