March 7, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

You Have Electronic Skin

Your skin has resistance with memory.  That makes it like a memristor, researchers at the University of Oslo are saying.  A memristor is a device that remembers the last current it experienced, and varies its resistance accordingly.
    New Scientist explained what they found:

They found that when a negative electrical potential is applied to skin on various parts of the arm, creating a current, that stretch of skin exhibits a low resistance to a subsequent current flowing through the skin.  But if the first potential is positive relative to the skin, then a subsequent potential produces a current that meets with a much higher resistance.  In other words, the skin has a memory of previous currents.

The scientists have attributed this ability to sweat pores.  The sweat glands contain sodium, a conductive material:

The longer skin is exposed to a negative potential, the lower the subsequent resistance, until it maxes out when sweat fills the pore.  Conversely, a positive potential pushes the ions back, thinning the layer of sweat lining the pore walls and increasing the skin’s resistance to current.

It’s not clear what function this ability provides skin.  Another researcher at the University of South Carolina found memristive behavior in amoebas, and called it “primitive intelligence.”  Whatever function it might have, it could offer medical scientists new ways to test for skin abnormalities.
    The memristor was suggested by Leon Chua at UC Berkeley as a fourth basic unit of electronic circuits, but a working model was not built till 2008 by Stanley Williams of Hewlett Packard’s Palo Alto lab, the article said.
    A website called reports on memristor news and potential applications, such as non-volatile computer memory and signal processing, most of which appear to be in the design and patent stages.

Intelligent design theory would say, “If it’s there, it might have a function.”  Let’s follow this and see if a function is found in human skin or is just a byproduct of some other function.  Evolution, by contrast, would just say, “stuff happens.”
    Send in your suggestions for the function of memristors in skin, or research projects that could test for a function.  Does it signal temperature response, as with goose bumps?  Is it behind the “electricity” when finding a mate?  Does it regulate sweating?
    Meanwhile, be glad your electronics don’t short out when you dive into a swimming pool.  Look at that picture of Dr. Irwin Moon on the right sidebar.  One wonders what his skin remembered about a million volts.

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