Pressure-sensitive artificial skin signals brain cells when touched

Artificial skin that sends pressure sensations directly to brain cells has been developed for the first time, bringing the eventual goal of flexible, healing and feeling artificial skin a step closer.

Developed by Zhenan Bao, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, the skin is able to detect the level of pressure applied to it, be it a light touch or a hard press.

Bao, who has been working on the development of artificial skin for a decade, led a team of 17 researchers to create the technology, which has been detailed in an article published today in the journal Science.

“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,” she said.

Bao aims for the skin, which is designed to fit over a prosthetic limb, to eventually be able to heal, signal pain and detect touch and temperature.

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The artificial skin is made up of two layers of plastic, with the top layer providing sensing capabilities and the bottom sending the data to nerve cells as electrical signals.

The top layer’s sensing abilities are achieved by giving the plastic a waffle pattern, which makes the plastic very sensitive to pressure, and then dispersing billions of carbon nanotubes throughout it.

These nanotubes conduct electricity when squeezed together, so when pressure on the skin increases, the nanotubes are pushed closer together, and more electricity is conducted.

The second layer, which takes the form of a flexible electronic circuit, then transmits this electricity to nerve cells in pulses, allowing the level of pressure to be determined.

This is designed to mimic the way real human skin works, as our own awareness of pressure is the result of our brain interpreting short pulses of electricity in a similar manner.

The have not yet directly tested the skin by hooking it up to a human brain, however. Instead they took inspiration from a field known as optogenetics – where optics and genetics meet – to generate an artificial version of part of the human nervous system, which they signalled by transferring the electrical signals into pulses of light.

While this was an effective proof of concept, in the long run the researchers plan to use a different approach to directly stimulate human nerves with the electrical pulses. They are confident this can be achieved as other researchers have already found ways to stimulate neurons directly with such pulses.

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Images courtesy of Bao Research Group, Stanford University

There is still considerable work ahead before Bao’s dream of fully sensory artificial skin can be realised, but this work is an exceptionally important step along the way.

“We have a lot of work to take this from experimental to practical applications,” she said. “But after spending many years in this work, I now see a clear path where we can take our artificial skin.”

With just two layers in the current system, the researchers believe it will be easy to add additional sensors as they are developed.

Among those the researchers want to create are sensors to determine different textures, allowing the wearer to differentiate between fabrics, for example, and sensors to determine the temperature of an object.

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Want to learn how to be an office don? Start playing World of Warcraft

A new study has found that gamers who work well in a team during “raids” while playing World of Warcraft (WoW) develop qualities that allow them to excel in the workplace.

Basically, all that time your parents said was wasted playing video games, you were actually training to become a better worker than the guy who spent his internship fetching coffee.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, surveyed WoW players from across a multitude of servers.

Those surveyed were diverse in age, race, sex, class, occupation and location, and on average played WoW eight hours a week  and worked 38 hours a week, a factor which was of particular interest as the researchers wanted players with full-time jobs requiring teamwork.

“What we wanted to look at was virtual teamwork and what kind of characteristics a person had in-game that would translate to real life and the workplace,” said Elizabeth Short, a graduate student in industrial-organizational psychology who compiled data for the study.

The skills provided by managing to properly work together to bring down the Lich King are obvious in some aspects – computer-mediated communication skills and technology readiness were highlighted by researchers for example – but a more notable discovery was how WoW raiding develops, what the study refers to as, the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness,  conscientiousness and neuroticism.

The survey’s respondents were each asked 140 questions about motivation, communication skills, preferences for teamwork and personality, with most questions relating to the Big Five personality traits.

By comparing the players’ survey answers to their characters’ statistics, players gained group achievement points based on how much group gameplay they participated in and how successfully the researchers were able to find small but “statistically significant” correlations.

Fairly predictably, the correlation that stood out as one of the strongest was that of “technological readiness”.

It’s fairly obvious using tech to play WoW would stand you in good stead in a modern workplace, and it’s probably no surprise that desperately trying to keep your DPS alive while people determinedly attempt to lone wolf an entire raid is going to give you a certain resilience when it comes to dealing with technology.

“The more technologically ready you are, the more resilient around technology you are, the more adaptable you are, the more achievement points you have (in WoW),” said Short.

“The more achievements you have in game, the more technology savvy you are in real life. And that’s a good thing, especially in virtual communication teams and workplaces.”

The research stemmed in part from Short’s own past experience as a member of the WoW community and she has stated that she hopes to take the positive growth she took from the game and use those transferable skills to help others in the workplace.