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This Artificial Skin Could Make Prosthetics More Touchy-Feely

Imagine a fake hand that can feel a warm plate or sense when that plate is about to slip.

Think about all the properties of skin. It senses heat, dampness, and pressure. It stretches to accommodate movement. It regrows when you damage it.

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Pretty amazing stuff, and now researchers in South Korea have replicated much of the magic artificially. They’ve developed a “smart skin” that’s highly sensitive and could make prosthetic limbs more useful.

The skin, research on which was published in the latest issue of Nature Communications, is made of a silicone material and encrusted with thousands of tiny gold sensors. It’s designed to stretch to different extents depending on the part of the body it’s used for. And, it even has series of heating devices that match the body’s normal temperature.


Scientists have been working on ways to give prosthetic limbs more sensitivity, including attaching wires to nerve endings (see here) and controlling arms from new brain interfaces. But according to MIT Technology Review, the new skin is different in being able to sense heat and to tell if an object is about to slip. Current technology lacks that ability.

In tests on rats, the researchers showed the animals could feel heat, pressure, and moisture (though not how much). The next challenge is to link this new-found sensitivity with the brain, so people can feel what they’re feeling. That may still be a few years away.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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