Revolutionary Prosthetic Skin Could Bring Sense of Touch Back to Patients
Two years ago, a police officer named Marty Dulworth, out of the small town of Anderson, Indiana, responded to a call of “shots fired” in a residential area. He and his partner, a Belgian Malinois police dog named Kilo, rushed to the scene to apprehend the suspect and were caught in the crossfire of an AK-47. Dulworth took a few bullets to the leg and ankle, causing him a severe amount of pain and blood loss. Among the panic and confusion, Kilo saw his partner fall and attacked anything close to him, which led to his unfortunate and tragic death.
Dulworth’s medical training from his time in the Marines kicked in, and he kept himself from bleeding out and dying that day, sparing enough time to get the medical attention he desperately needed. He was sent by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where they tried to reconstruct his ankle with as many wires and screw it took to remain intact.
He spent a year trying to recover from the operation, taking doses of prescribed pills to numb the pain. He couldn’t move like he used to and fell into a deep depression. After that year ended, he and his doctor decided to amputate the lower half of his leg instead of trying to continue traditional recovery.
Six days after the amputation, Dulworth couldn’t feel below his knee but was able to return to the force with full permissions. He’s still on the force to this day, moving and feeling better than ever before.
Now, thanks to a team of researchers in South Korea’s Seoul National University, patients like Dulworth suffering loss of limbs, replaced with prosthetics, may be able to feel the sensation of skin once again. A recent study takes the technology of stretchable silicon nanoribbon electronics and applies it to skin prosthesis.
The Prosthetic Skin Study in South Korea
Although the findings are revolutionary, the researchers assert at the very beginning the challenges of prosthetics:
Sensory receptors in human skin transmit a wealth of tactic and thermal signals from external environments to the brain. Despite advances in our understanding of the mechno- and thermosensation, replication of these unique sensory characteristics in artificial skin and prosthetics remains challenging.
The researcher’s study found that stretchable prosthetic skin, normally stretched over a prosthetic limb, can be equipped with an ultrathin single crystalline silicon nanoribbon strain (SiNR), pressure and temperature arrays. Utilizing this technology, along with the integration of stretchable humidity sensors and heaters allows the person to feel such sensations as skin moistures and the ability to regulate body temperature.
Site-specifically designed SiNR mechanical and temperature sensor arrays integrated with stretchable humidity sensors and thermal actuators enable high sensitivity, wide detection ranges and mechanical durability for prosthetic systems. As a result, sensing and actuation capabilities are enabled over a wide range of sensory inputs, in the presence of skin deformations, thus providing enhanced function and high performance in the emerging field of smart prosthetics.
The skin is a step in the right direction toward unlocking the potential of prosthetics. The technology takes a huge leap forward, being able to create a sensation close to the sense of touch and feeling. It’s still unknown how close this technology is to worldwide application, but for people like Dulworth, the future looks promising.
Images from Wikimedia Commons.