Prosthetic limbs are becoming more complex, more lifelike, and less expensive each day with technological advancements.

Now, researchers at the USA’s John Hopkins University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering have made a remarkable new breakthrough. Luke Osborn, a graduate student researcher, and his colleagues have developed a synthetic, electronic skin called E-dermis, which may enable people wearing prosthetics to “feel” things, as though they’re touching them.

E-dermis provides vital sensory information to the prosthetic and the wearer through pain sensors attached to the fingertips of the prosthesis. The skin-like layer can detect both touch and even pain, as well as the curvature of objects to differentiate between something round or something sharp and pointed (video above).

Why pain, though? According to Gizmodo, the objective of sending pain signals is to avoid damaging the prosthesis, which is generally very expensive. “We feel pain through receptors in our skin,” Osborn explained to Gizmodo. “We have what are called mechanoreceptors that send information about anything we touch to our brain. That’s why we can feel things like pressure or texture. Nociceptors, on the other hand, convey sensations of pain when we touch something sharp or have a cut. We built a multilayered electronic dermis, or E-dermis, that tries to mimic the behaviour of these different receptors.”

Next, Osborn plans to have E-dermis detect other components of touch, such as temperature, texture and proprioception (knowing the location of our body parts relative to each other). “By adding in different sensations, we can continue to improve upper limb prostheses to make them even more functional and lifelike,” said Osborn.