Scientists created pain-sensing electronic skin

Pain is, obviously, not pleasant, but it is also absolutely necessary. The feeling of pain informs you that something is not right. For example, when you touch something very hot, you immediately know that you have to move away from it. Now scientists at RMIT University are developing electronic skin, which can replicate the sense of pain.

This sensitive artificial skin is flexible, stretchable, ultra thin and durable. Image credit: RMIT

Pain is incredibly important for us. Without pain, you wouldn’t know you shouldn’t touch the hot cookie sheet straight out of the oven. You wouldn’t realize you’re standing on very sharp rocks that can damage your feet. You would also not know when your muscles are getting worn out and it’s time to rest. However, some people lost their sense of pain together with their limbs. Which is why scientists are trying to develop an electronic skin, which would function like a pain sensor of sorts. Scientists say that it is the first device of its kind, able to realistically mimic pain – it  reacts instantly when pressure, heat or cold reach a painful threshold.

Scientists also developed devices that can sense changes in temperature and pressure. Again, very important functions of our skin. You know when you have to put on a sweater, but some people have lost that ability. Scientists say that this stretchable artificial skin will someday be used for non-invasive skin grafts.

This pain-sensing artificial skin combines several interesting technologies. First of all, it’s stretchable,  transparent, unbreakable and as thin as a sticker. Stretchable electronics were not possible not so long ago, but now scientists make it by combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicone. Then it has self-modifying temperature-reactive coatings that are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. Finally, this device has an electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and retain previous information.

This device could help some people to regain the lost confidence about their ability to explore the world that’s surrounding them. There have been some pain-mimicking devices before, but none of them achieved this level of sensitivity and accurate response. Ataur Rahman, one of the researchers in the study, said: “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.

Restoring the lost senses is very important in the recovery process. Artificial electronic skin could help in the case of burns and even lost limbs. However, some day this capability could be used in robotics as well, helping our electronic companions to stay out of the trouble. They would move away from heat and sharp objects, leveraging signals from these pain-sensing devices.


Source: RMIT University

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