Turkish amputees look to 'smart' skin to restore touch

A Turkish researcher predicts that within two years amputees will be able to use artificial 'smart' skin which will provide touch and sensation for the first time

Turkish amputees look to 'smart' skin to restore touch
“In all my life, I’ve never experienced proper sensation.”

Forty-year-old Hasan Akdag is a Turkish accountant, born without legs, who suffers from very little feeling in his hands.

Born with a rare condition known as “congenital amputation” Akdag is missing both legs below the knee.

“I don’t know the shapes of objects when I close my eyes. For example, I cannot move when the lights are turned off, as I have very little sensation in my body,” he says.

But one Istanbul scientist now claims that, within two years, revolutionary ‘smart’ skin could restore touch, feeling and sensation to people who need prosthetic limbs.

Utku Buyuksahin, 35, an assistant professor in the Mechatronics Engineering Department of Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul has developed a silicon-based 'smart' artificial skin which can function like the real thing.

It can sense touch, pressure and even temperature and it can also stretch like natural skin.

Buyuksahin displays a prototype made of silicon and fiber-optic cables. It sends signals to a computer by detecting every sensation when touched.

Having already tested the design over prosthetic limbs, Buyuksahin now wants to eventually graft the replica skin onto humans where it can send signals to brain.

Buyuksahin's smart skin has higher-resolution sensory capabilities compared to other designs by American and Korean researchers.

While they put around 400 sensors per square millimeter, the system which Buyuksahin has developed can work with one million sensors per square centimeter.

“More sensors mean more sensation in different spots,” he says adding that the sensibility of the skin can be adjusted depending on need.

However, the struggle to fund this groundbreaking research has seen the scientist working without laboratory or research team: “When I resolve financial problems, I believe [amputees] will be able to use it within two years,” Buyuksahin says.

The academic first started developing the project five years ago but the focus was then on providing artificial skin for robots but a chance encounter inspired Buyuksahin to make the idea work for humans.

“I saw a disabled young man in a bus, aged in his 20s, who had a prosthetic arm. He sat in front of me for around 30 minutes. After seeing him, I started thinking of how I could start human-related research,” he says.

People who have suffered the trauma of amputation or missing limbs have become excited by Buyuksahin’s research.

“When someone taps my left arm, I don’t feel anything. It sometimes a joke among my friends,” says Mukerrem Mese, who works as a secretary in the northern Turkish province of Kastamonu.

Mese, 27, had no left arm when she was born. “I would definitely want to use [artificial skin],” she says.

“I would surely want to sense touch, temperature and everything just like my other, healthy arm.”

Mehmet Cilgin, who was a fireman in northern Turkey, had his left leg amputated after it became trapped in a fire ladder while he was extinguishing a blaze in 2006.

“It is like false teeth. There is no sensation in my leg. I surely want to feel again,” says the 47-year-old, who now works as a telephone operator.

Yavuz Kavlak, 29, lost his right arm in a traffic accident when he was four years old. He describes everyday practical problems as well as a lack of sensation.

“I cannot button my shirt up. I cannot wear whatever I want, especially short-sleeve t-shirts,” says Kavlak, now a civil servant at Directorate of National Education in central Turkish city of Cankiri.

“If you haven’t experienced a loss of sense, you will not understand exactly what it means,” Buyuksahin says.

In May, the researcher suffered an accident of his own when he slashed two fingers in metal cutting machine while working – temporarily losing sensation in one digit.

Buyuksahin is now working hard to make the ‘smart’ skin available to amputees immediately. “Every day which passes where I cannot progress this project increases my embarrassment towards those who need this.”

If it comes true, an amputees with a robotic prosthetic hand covered with the artificial skin could potentially be able to button their shirts, use a keyboard or hold soft materials like grapes without bruising – thanks to the increased sensation.

The artificial skin not only has the potential to be used by amputees but also by space or surgical robots to accomplish difficult tasks.

But it is to restore one of a human being's basic senses – that of touch – where this revolutionary smart skin comes into its own. Time will tell if it can make the leap from science fiction to everyday reality.

Anadolu Agency
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