Science & Technology

Would You Wear a Tooth-Mounted Sensor?

Ever tried to stick to a diet? It feels great to take care of your body, but it's also important to remember to give yourself a treat every now and then. Like having a cinnamon roll for an afternoon snack. But wait, didn't you just have a cinnamon roll for breakfast this morning? Dang ... if only there was a way your mouth could keep track of how much sugar you were actually eating. Well, someday, there might be. Tufts researchers have developed a sensor that can detect chemicals in your food — a sensor that mounts directly on your teeth.

Tooth or Dare

The sensor is designed to analyze everything that passes by your lips and send that information to a mobile device. It's tiny, too: the square measures 2 millimeters across (the average front tooth measures 11 millimeters, by comparison). And obviously, it's wireless so you won't have to worry about eating next to an electric outlet. That itty-bitty square is made up of three layers: two gold rings and a central bioresponsive layer that reacts to various chemical stimuli. Together, they create a tiny antenna capable of wireless transmission, right on your tooth.

When the bioresponsive layer reacts, it changes the signal that the antenna transmits. That means, for example, that if it detects salt, the sensor transmits a specific radio frequency. And there you have it: that's all you need to automatically keep track of your sodium intake. The device as it exists right now can detect not only sodium, but also alcohol and glucose — in other words, booze and sugar. Those are both pretty important to keep track of. The sensor isn't exactly on the market yet, but it's very promising in terms of future diet management.

Reaction Jackson

The current version can only react to a few chemicals, but with a little tweaking, the patch could someday be made to track pretty much any substance at all — not just ingredients in your food, but also chemical clues into your physiological state. "We are really only limited by our creativity," says Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto, corresponding author on the study.

But even if that development never comes to be, the sensor itself is already a breakthrough. One of the surprising advancements necessary for this device was the ability to affix the patch to the irregular (and moist) surface of a tooth. That means that attaching that same device to other surfaces could be a lot easier. Affixing it to an athlete's skin might clue them into their electrolyte levels, for example, and sewing it into clothing could be handy for detecting dangerous substances in the air. Really, the sky is the limit.

Anyway you slice it, wearable technology is the future. But you don't have to rely on electronics corporations to create the gizmo of your dreams. You can make one yourself. Check out Kate Hartman's "Make: Wearable Electronics" to start creating one-of-a-kind devices for yourself and your friends. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 26, 2018