New Artificial Nerve Works Pretty Much the Way Ours Do

A pretty nice advance” is what Robert Shepard, an organic electronics expert at Cornell, calls the development of a new artificial nerve that can sense touch, process information, and communicate with other nerves in much the same way that nerves in our own bodies do.

According to a recent report in Science, It could lead to dramatic improvements in how people with artificial limbs—and someday robots—sense and interact with their environments. It could also give future robots a greater ability to interact with their ever-changing environments—something vital for performing complex tasks, such as caring for the elderly.

Researchers led by chemist Zhenan Bao at Stanford have constructed the artificial nerve from flexible organic components that have three main parts.

First, a series of dozens of sensors pick up on pressure cues. Pressing on one of these sensors causes an increase in voltage between two electrodes. This change is then picked up by a second device called a ring oscillator, which converts voltage changes into a string of electrical pulses. These pulses, and those from other pressure sensor/ring oscillator combos, are fed into a third device called a synaptic transistor, which sends out a series of electrical pulses in patterns that match those produced by biological neurons.

Bao and her colleagues used their setup to detect the motion of a small rod moving in different directions across their pressure sensors, as well as identify Braille characters. What’s more, they managed to connect their artificial neuron to a biological counterpart. The researchers detached a leg from a cockroach and inserted an electrode from the artificial neuron to a neuron in the roach leg; signals coming from the artificial neuron caused muscles in the leg to contract.

Because organic electronics like this are inexpensive to make, the approach should allow scientists to integrate large numbers of artificial nerves that could pick up on multiple types of sensory information, Shepherd says. Such a system could provide far more sensory information to future prosthetics wearers, helping them better control their new appendages. It could also give future robots a greater ability to interact with their ever-changing environments—something vital for performing complex tasks, such as caring for the elderly.