At the University of Chicago neuro researchers are working on studying how the nerves in a person’s fingertips communicate with the brain to relay tactile sensations. They hope their understanding will lead to technologies that enable the sense of touch in prosthetic devices and to that end they’ve built a simulator that replicates the activity of 12,500 nerve fibers at a millisecond resolution.
As a virtual texture is pressed against or dragged across the simulation’s fingertip, its fibers activate to create patterns that are interpreted by our brains to represent the given texture. The skin of the simulation is modeled to replicate the squishy, dynamic nature of our own skin, the contraction and expansion of which plays a significant role in how we feel the things we touch.
“Almost everything we know about how the nerve responds to stimulation on the skin of the hand is built into this model,” said Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, associate professor at the University of Chicago, and principal author of the study appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Finally, you can see how all these nerve fibers work together to give rise to touch.”
The study will hopefully allow scientists to be able to generate signal patterns that are the same as that the skin would naturally produce, which would foreshadow a highly functional link between man-made touch sensors and the human brain, producing a true sense of touch.
Here’s an animation demonstrating the simulation: