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Artificial Limb, Skin Advances Add Sensation

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, November 2, 2010

The center formed around a challenge from the industrial partners to build a fiber optic sensor scaled for individual nerve signals: "Team members have been developing the individual pieces of the solution over the past few years, but with this new federal funding we are able to push the technology forward into an integrated system that works at the cellular level," Christensen said.

Stanford University researchers in Menlo Park recently published the results of their work on creating artificial electronic skin that would be flexible and sensitive to even minor touches, such as the weight of an insect. Such a touch-sensitive material could be used for human prosthetics, sensory input devices for robotics, and applications where the biologic and electronic communicate, according to the report. That project is supported by the Department of Energy.

Researchers placed a thin sheet of rubber between even slimmer electrodes to make flexible and (you guessed it) thin pressure sensors. To make the rubber sheet more spongy and pressure-sensitive, millions of little structures were molded into it. As the rubber film deforms on exertion of pressure, the electrodes change proximity resulting in a change of charge that can register as “feeling.” The researchers found their material to be sensitive enough to detect a fly and fast enough to provide fluid reaction times when perceived by people.

What’s next?
Researchers from SMU, Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of North Texas are also investigating the possibilities of man-to-machine applications that extend far beyond prosthetics, leading to medical breakthroughs such as brain implants for the control of tremors, neuro-modulators for chronic pain management, and implants for patients with spinal cord injuries. "This technology has the potential to patch the spinal cord above and below a spinal injury," Christensen said. "Someday, we will get there."

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