Bionic exoskeletons like this may one day incorporate memory-displaying artificial musclesFlickr: ekso bionics

The importance of muscle memory cannot be understated. A flautist repeatedly practising a sonata may initially struggle with the intricate patterns of finger movement required, but will soon develop muscle memory. Scientists have long sought after this curious ability, and have finally mimicked the biological phenomenon in artificial muscles.

Artificial muscles are materials or devices that contract, expand or rotate in response to an external stimulus. Scientists have designed materials that can exhibit properties of movement and memory, but combining the two has proved fiendishly tricky.

"Muscles in animals have the ability to control both motion and develop muscle memory in the same tissue, but reproducing these multiple functions in an artificial muscle has not been possible until now," explained Dr Stoyan Smoukov, the leader of the research group in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy which undertook the research.

Smoukov's research group, the Active and Intelligent Materials Lab, has produced a material encompassing both of these functions. Research into the breakthrough material, known as polymeric electro-mechanical memory (EMM), was funded by the European Research Council. Based on bendable material available from batteries and fuel cells, EMM is programmed for specific shapes at specific temperatures. This process 'teaches' the artificial muscle to 'remember' the movement associated with each shape. Recovering the movement is simply a matter of changing the temperature. The research gives a positive outlook on the potential to incorporate other muscular functions into materials.

In the past, artificial muscles have been used in biomimetic machines, including robots, industrial actuators and powered exoskeletons – technologies that replicate biological systems for practical and industrial use. However, the creation of artificial muscle with muscle memory suggests a new horizon of potential bio-implantation devices, which function to replace defunct or missing muscles. The lab, already a leader in sustainable active and adaptive materials, has arguably created a new frontier in biomedicine.