Prosthetics may soon take on a whole new feel. That’s because researchers have created a new type of artificial nerve that can sense touch, process information, and communicate with other nerves much like those in our own bodies do. Future versions could add sensors to track changes in texture, position, and different types of pressure, leading to potentially dramatic improvements in how people with artificial limbs—and someday robots—sense and interact with their environments.
“It’s a pretty nice advance,” says Robert Shepherd, an organic electronics expert at Cornell University. Not only are the soft, flexible, organic materials used to make the artificial nerve ideal for integrating with pliable human tissue, but they are also relatively cheap to manufacture in large arrays, Shepherd says.
Modern prosthetics are already impressive: Some allow amputees to control arm movement with just their thoughts; others have pressure sensors in the fingertips that help wearers control their grip without the need to constantly monitor progress with their eyes. But our natural sense of touch is far more complex, integrating thousands of sensors that track different types of pressure, such as soft and forceful touch, along with the ability to sense heat and changes in position. This vast amount of information is ferried by a network that passes signals through local clusters of nerves to the spinal cord and ultimately the brain. Only when the signals combine to become strong enough do they make it up the next link in the chain.