Electronic skin may someday restore touch

February 1, 2011 7:16:19 PM PST
A team of doctors at Stanford University has come up with a kind of electronic skin, and they believe it could someday provide the sense of touch to the disabled.

From a firm handshake to a gentle caress, the sense of touch relies in part on the skin's ability to gauge pressure. Now, researchers at Stanford believe they can harness that ability to turn rubber into a kind of artificial skin.

"Putting it into a device structure we're able to allow stretchable rubber that feels like skin, looks like skin, to be able to sense touch," Stanford researcher Zhenan Bao, Ph.D., said

Like the neurons in our bodies, the rubberized skin relies on electricity to relay the signals. But to make it sensitive to pressure, Bao's team created new flexible electrodes sandwiched between layers of a specialized rubber. She says the slightest touch compresses the rubber and brings the electrodes closer together.

With just a touch of his finger, researcher Stefan Mannsfeld triggers the sensors and with more pressure, the electricity being passed through the artificial skin increases, sending a stronger signal. Now imagine thousands of flexible sensors integrated into skin like sheets, and placed over, say a prosthetic arm. Future technology could allow Bao's team to relay sophisticated touch signals directly to the body's neurons.

"Potentially this could be our skin sensor. With different regions, we could put sensors then these sensors and they could generate a map of the object we're touching," Bao said.

In one experiment, the system was able to detect the weight of a butterfly. That is an example of the sensitivity of this technology, which they hope will someday touch the lives people.

"If we can do that, then we are truly emulating the human skin," Bao said.

A team at the University of California has developed another version of the technology and both projects were funded by defense department grants.

Written and produced by Tim Didion