A cockroach carries an electronic mimic of a nerve that senses variations in pressure. Credit: Amir M. Foudeh/Yeongin Kim/Zhenan Bao/Tae-Woo Lee

Biomaterials

Synthetic nerve flexes a cockroach’s muscle

Electronic system recreates an advanced sense of touch.

An artificial nerve can sense pressure changes and activate the muscles of a cockroach.

Artificial nerves that have an animal’s sophisticated sense of touch could advance the capabilities of prosthetics. Tae-Woo Lee at Seoul National University and his colleagues took a step towards that goal by designing a bio-inspired nerve system that communicates complex tactile information. A cluster of pressure sensors is connected to an electronic nerve network that transforms pressure changes into voltage pulses, which are then integrated into currents. This mimics the receptors, nerve fibres and synapses of biological nerves.

In tests, the system distinguished between various braille characters by detecting the distinct current signatures generated by each character. The team also attached the system to the nerve endings of the leg of a discoid cockroach (Blaberus discoidalis). When the pressure sensors were activated, the roach’s leg kicked, demonstrating the system’s ability to control biological muscles.