Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, has been trying, for a long time, to develop a material that mimics skin's ability to flex and heal, while also serving as the sensor net that sends touch, temperature and pain signals to the brain. Ultimately she wants to create a flexible electronic fabric embedded with sensors that could cover a prosthetic limb and replicate some of skin's sensory functions.
In a recent publication in Science, Bao has achieved part of her goal by reproducing the sensory mechanism which enables human beings to distinguish different pressures applied to the skin. "This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system," said Bao, who led the 17-person research team responsible for the achievement.
The technique consists of two-ply plastic construct: the top layer creates a sensing mechanism and the bottom layer acts as the circuit to transport electrical signals and translate them into biochemical stimuli compatible with nerve cells. The top layer in the new work featured a sensor that can detect pressure over the same range as human skin. Five years ago, Bao's team members first described how to use plastics and rubbers as pressure sensors by measuring the natural springiness of their molecular structures. They then increased this natural pressure sensitivity by indenting a waffle pattern into the thin plastic, which further compresses the plastic's molecular springs.
To exploit this pressure-sensing capability electronically, the team scattered billions of carbon nanotubes through the waffled plastic. Putting pressure on the plastic squeezes the nanotubes closer together and enables them to conduct electricity. This allowed the plastic sensor to mimic human skin, which transmits pressure information to the brain as short pulses of electricity, similar to Morse code. Increasing pressure on the waffled nanotubes squeezes them even closer together, allowing more electricity to flow through the sensor, and those varied impulses are sent as short pulses to the sensing mechanism. The team then hooked this pressure-sensing mechanism to the second ply of their artificial skin, a flexible electronic circuit that could carry pulses of electricity to nerve cells.
Finally the team had to prove that the electronic signal could be recognised by a biological neuron. It did this by adapting a technique developed by Karl Deisseroth, a fellow professor of bioengineering at Stanford who pioneered a field that combines genetics and optics, called optogenetics. Researchers bioengineer cells to make them sensitive to specific frequencies of light, then use light pulses to switch cells, or the processes being carried on inside them, on and off. For this experiment the team members engineered a line of neurons to simulate a portion of the human nervous system. They translated the electronic pressure signals from the artificial skin into light pulses, which activated the neurons, proving that the artificial skin could generate a sensory output compatible with nerve cells.
Bao's team envisions developing, in the long run, different sensors to replicate, for instance, the ability to distinguish corduroy versus silk, or a cold glass of water from a hot cup of coffee. There are six types of biological sensing mechanisms in the human hand, and the experiment described in Science reports success in just one of them. But the current two-ply approach means the team can add sensations as it develops new mechanisms. "We have a lot of work to take this from experimental to practical applications," Bao said. "But after spending many years in this work, I now see a clear path where we can take our artificial skin."