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Researchers Make Synthetic Skin That Adds Touch to Artificial Limbs

FILE - Model robotic hand with artificial mechanoreceptors, undated. (Courtesy: Bao Research Group, Stanford University).

People who use artificial limbs are now able to move with their prosthetics with thoughts, but they still have the very literal problem of not knowing their own strength.

Picking up something as delicate as a strawberry could easily turn the fruit to mush because there's no way to gauge how much pressure is being exerted.

So scientists at Stanford have created a flexible fabric-like skin embedded with sensors that mimic some of natural skin’s sensory functions. The results of the study are published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

The researchers tested a two-part device. The top layer senses pressure and translates it into digital signals. The bottom layer sends the electrical pulses to nerve cells, which transmit the information to the brain which recognizes them as touch.

In tests, mice cells were able to register the pressure exerted by the artificial skin.

“The end goal of this would certainly be to make sensors that can be integrated with the human body in order to make prosthetic devices," said Alex Chortos, one of the lead researchers. "So we want prosthetic devices that can feel touch the same way that humans do.”

The artificial skin would also be able to respond to the amount of force being applied, noting the difference between a caress and a poke.

Chortos says researchers hope to go beyond the sensation of touch.

“There are a few other things like vibration and temperature and stretching, and those other things are opportunities for future work in this field," he said.

Scientists hope that perhaps in the next three to five years, they will be able to create artificial skin that would allow artificial limb wearers to feel sensation, from a handhold to the heat of a coffee cup.