Snake-inspired skin: the future of sensory prosthetics

The field of prosthetics is a niche, yet integral component, in showing how technology can increase the quality of life of those around us. Whilst amputees may not represent the majority of the general populace, they are reaping the benefits of amazing new advances in technology that increase their sensory involvement in day to day living, as well as normalizing their menial tasks, which some of us take for granted. 

Prosthetics today are putting more emphasis on the sensation of touch, and the research behind it is striving to replicate exactly how it feels to have a real, functioning, biological arm. 


Snakes and Skin 

Newly prototyped “Viper-Skin” for prosthetics is a development which uses a mechanism similar to the heat-sensing organs of pit viper snakes; it creates an epidermal layer for prostheses that can feel temperature changes. Not only can this artificial skin be grafted onto amputees' prosthetics, but it can also be used on medical bandages to sense temperature changes, which could indicate infection. 


How Prosthetic Skin of The Future Works 

The skin, or “film”, as the researchers at Caltech’s Engineering department (the spearheaders  of the project) like to call it, mimics the pit viper's heat sensing organs. Ion channels in the cell membrane of pit vipers' sensory nerve fibres expand during a fluctuation of temperature; this allows the ions to flow, and triggers the impulses which lead to sensations and feedback of temperature change within the snake. The mechanism used in the prototypal skin is very similar, and uses a membrane of pectin and water, which creates a near identical bio-electronic effect when used on prosthetics. 


The impact of this innovation infuses life back into prosthetic wearers, and can safeguard those needing medical bandages from further negative health effects. For amputees, this could mean an army veteran being able to feel the warmth of his newborn child for the first time, or a small boy born without a leg being able to feel the hot sand beneath his feet. Whilst ordinary prosthetics are very functionality driven, this new skin will allow prosthetic users to literally feel more like their peers, and in many ways feel less robbed of what it is to be a human. 

The physical senses are a very integral component in quality of life, for it can be a struggle when any of them are jeopardized, or taken away. In a world all about accelerating and enhancing the senses, with innovations like virtual reality and “smell-a-vision”, medical breakthroughs like Viper-Skin are inclusive and well-meaning for those who just crave the basic five. 

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