The Tiny Tooth Sensor: Transforming Your Mouth into Your Own Dietitian

By Lily Marino


In recent decades, there has been an increasing obsession with dieting and monitoring your intake of calories, proteins, gluten, or whatever you find to be of importance. While these behaviors may be a lot to keep track of, there are many benefits to knowing the state of your body’s nutrients in real time. Researchers at the Tufts University School of Engineering have developed a prototype of a tiny gadget that could do all that work for you—a wireless device that adheres to the texture of your tooth and communicates with any mobile device. It can detect amounts of glucose, salt, and alcohol intake, giving you immediate feedback.


This device, although only 2mm by 2mm, is made up of three layers. The central layer is classified as “bioresponsive” and absorbs nutrients, and is covered by two tiny gold rings. It operates on the radiofrequency spectrum, meaning it acts as a radio antenna, where it transmits information based on the wavelengths of different substances. For example: if the central layer takes on salt, it will experience a change in electrical properties, causing the wavelength that it sends to your mobile device to shift.


However, the researchers see no limit for what chemicals this sensor would be able to detect. Fiorenzo Omenetto, the professor of engineering who led the research, hopes to “evolve the sensor and engineer it to have a database of food consumption, [so that] you could think about nutrition management.” They even hope to develop an app where you can customize your own diet plan, and analyze how well you are adhering to it. This kind of personalization could radicalize the ideas of eating healthy, so we could see exactly what benefits certain foods hold, instead of purely relying on “nutrition fads”.

Artwork by Gracyn Mose

The adoption of this technology could be great news for the health-inclined, and the researchers are attempting to expand the abilities of the sensor. In theory, it could be attached to patches of skin, or eventually even internal organs. This could help monitor physiological signs such as fatigue, or changes in saliva consistency. While currently the device is only thought to have nutritional benefits, it may very well end up being able to monitor critical care patients’ vitals — like their saliva’s lactate levels. For people who have to manage their own nutrition intake, such as diabetics, this device could measure sugar intake over specific periods of time. Or it could alert those with celiac disease if they’ve consumed gluten. It could even be marketed in the same fashion as a FitBit, appealing to athletes who want to measure their electrolyte levels during intensive training.

There are also many possible negative implications to the digitization of all your personal health data. For one, the database for these sensors could provide more and more information that could affect health insurance policy eligibility, using bodily data they would otherwise have no access to. And, in a culture where anorexia, bulimia, and many other eating-related disorders are present, a constant monitor of nutrition intake could farther enable unhealthy behaviors. If this technology were to become common in, say, the next decade, it is easy to imagine that the amount of information it provides would be controversial. For now, I’m gonna stick with eating the old-fashioned way. But in the future, who knows how far the automation of our bodies could go?


References:


Zainzinger, V., & Matchar, E. (2018). A tiny sensor on your tooth could help keep you healthy. Science. doi:10.1126/science.aat6688


Berkovitz, B. K. (2018). You Are What You Eat. Nothing but the Tooth, 93-111. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-397190-6.00007-9

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