New ‘Smart Skin’ Could Make Prosthetics More Real

Smart SkinNew prosthetic skin that is warm and elastic like real skin, and is packed with many different kinds of sensors, could one day help people with prosthetic limbs regain their sense of touch, researchers say.

In experiments, the researchers laminated “electronic skin” — prosthetic skin embedded with electronics — onto a prosthetic hand. They found that the skin could survive complex operations, such as shaking hands, tapping keyboards, grasping baseballs, holding hot or cold drinks, touching dry or wet diapers, and touching other people.

The electronic skin proved to be as sensitive as expected to pressure, stretching, temperature and dampness, successfully relaying data rapidly and reliably, the researchers said.

The scientists included heating devices throughout the prosthetic skin that could make it feel at least as warm as a person’s body temperature. Human skin is elastic, soft and warm, said study co-author Dae-Hyeong Kim, a biomedical engineer at Seoul National University in South Korea. “Our device has such properties,” Kim said.

In recent years, many research groups around the globe have been developing bionic arms and legs that could help patients replace lost limbs. Increasingly, scientists are looking for ways to connect these bionic limbs to human nervous systems, which could help restore patients’ sense of touch as well.

But replicating the sensory capabilities of real skin has proven challenging. Recent efforts have aimed to develop smart prosthetics embedded with sensors, but those sensors were limited in either how sensitive they were, or how much data they could measure.

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