Making Skin That 'Feels'

January/February 2016

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Making Skin That 'Feels'

TOUCHING: An ultrasensitive electronic sensor can detect a butterfly alighting. Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Artificial skin is getting almost close enough to touch. 

Years of research by Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering leading a 17-person team, produced a major step forward last fall: Pressure sensors that imitate the feeling experienced with human skin were engineered to send electrical pulses that can communicate with the brain. Then the group adapted a technique from Karl Deisseroth, PhD ’98, MD ’00, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, to demonstrate how the signals could be recognized by a biological neuron.

Much work remains before the flexible, skinlike material under development can be refined as the outer layer of a prosthetic limb, with the ability to convey sensations to nerve systems. Bao says the most important next step for her sensors—mechanoreceptors—is to test them on animals.

Stanford first wrote about Bao’s efforts at the start of 2012, describing her method for creating a film of stretchable and transparent sensors that might eventually mimic the touch-sensitive qualities of skin. Her advances since then include biodegradability and a self-healing property.

Benjamin Tee, MS ’07, PhD ’13 (electrical engineering), Alex Chortos, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering, and Andre Berndt, a postdoctoral scholar in neurobiology, were the lead authors for a paper on these latest findings in the journal Science.

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