Rethinking Healthcare

Smart fingertips enhance a doctor's sense of touch

Smart fingertips enhance a doctor's sense of touch

Posting in Design

These new wearable electronics can augment a surgeon's senses. Researchers hope to improve the tech, making it possible to recreate sensations of heat and even texture.

Engineers have developed wearable, flexible circuits that can augment the sense of touch by delivering feedback straight to the skin… in the form of tingles.

Similar (but flat, rigid) circuits that stimulate the senses are used in Braille readers to help blind people browse the internet.

These new smart fingertips, on the other hand, can actually mold to the shape of your hand, transmitting electric signals to the skin. It was developed by John Rogers of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues. ScienceNOW explains:

  1. First, they cut up nanometer-sized strips of silicon.
  2. They implanted thin, wavy strips of gold to conduct electricity.
  3. And they mounted the entire circuit in a stretchable, spider web-type mesh of polymer as a support. This makes up the nanomembrane.
  4. They then embedded the circuit-polyimide structure onto a hollow tube of silicone that had been fashioned in the shape of a finger – this allows one side of the circuit to be in direct contact with the fingertips.
  5. Just like turning a sock inside out, the researchers flipped the structure so that the circuit, which was once on the outside of the tube, was on the inside where it could touch a finger placed against it.

To test the electronic fingers, the researchers wore them and pressed down on flat objects, such as their desks. The pressure created electric currents that were transferred to the skin, which they felt as mild tingling sensation. This is called ‘electrotactile stimulation.’

The team hopes to one day incorporate the devices into a smart glove to recreate virtual sensations, fooling the brain into feeling pressure, texture, and temperature.

Some possible uses include:

  • Surgical gloves fitted with the nanomembrane could sense the thickness or composition of tissue via its electrical properties.
  • Trainees could perform virtual surgery, in which these devices are used to trick their brain into believing they’re actually performing a delicate task.
  • The tech can also be used to custom fit ‘electronic skin’ around entire organs, allowing doctors to remotely monitor changes in temperature and blood flow.
  • Electronic skin could also restore sensation to people who have lost their natural skin, such as burn victims or amputees.

MC10, the company commercializing the technology, is running animal trials of a nanomembrane ‘sock’ that can be wrapped around the heart. This provides a 3D map of its electrical activity, useful in treating irregular heartbeat, New Scientist explains.

The company is also working with Medtronic to use the membrane inside the heart. And Reebok is collaborating with MC10 on a ‘body-worn’ piece of electronics designed for contact sports.

The work was published in Nanotechnology last week.

[Via ScienceNOW, New Scientist]

Image: John Rogers / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure