Scientists 3D Printed the First Ever Biomimetic Tongue Surface

The implications could be vast for the food and nutrition industries, pharmaceutics, and healthcare.
Fabienne Lang
3D-printed tongue surfaceUniversity of Leeds

The first-ever 3D-printed artificial tongue has been made, and it has the potential to change many people's lives.

The artificial tongue is made up of synthetic soft surfaces that have similar textures to our regular tongue. A number of research fields could derive huge benefits from this discovery and creation. 

Scientists from the University of Leeds in the U.K. led the research, and were assisted by researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, among others, to come up with this novel, useful creation. 

Their findings were published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces on Monday.


Synthetic version just like a human one

This replica of the human tongue mimics the topology, elasticity, and wettability—how a liquid keeps contact and spreads across a surface—of the tongue's surface, which is a first in this field. 

Scientists 3D Printed the First Ever Biomimetic Tongue Surface
Prints of the human tongue's surface were taken. Source: University of Leeds

Our tongue plays a huge part in our daily lives without us even noticing it. Being able to create a replica of such a complex part of our anatomy opens many doors. For instance, in the treatment of dry mouth syndrome, which roughly 10% of the general population suffers from, and 30% of the older generation, the paper notes.

The study's lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, Dr. Efren Andablo-Reyes, said "Recreating the surface of an average human tongue comes with unique architectural challenges. Hundreds of small bud-like structures called papilla give the tongue its characteristic rough texture that in combination with the soft nature of the tissue creates a complicated landscape from a mechanical perspective."

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The team used its expertise in food colloid science, soft matter physics, dentistry, mechanical engineering, and computer science to create this artificial 3D-printed tongue. 

The way in which the team managed to do so was by collecting impressions of tongue surface samples from 15 adults. Then, these were 3D scanned optically to map out papillae dimensions, density, and average roughness of the tongues, per the study.

Scientists 3D Printed the First Ever Biomimetic Tongue Surface
The final result was a biometric tongue. Source: University of Leeds

The team then used computer simulations and mathematical modeling to create the 3D printed surface. This artificial surface was printed using light processing technology at the University of Leeds. 

Then the surface had to have the correct wettability, so as to have the same lubrication performance as the human tongue. 

"The ability to produce accurate replicas of tongue surfaces with similar structure and mechanical properties will help streamline research and development for oral care, food products, and therapeutic technologies," explained co-author of the study, Dr. Michael Bryant, from the School of Mechanical Engineering at Leeds.

The team mentioned that "This biomimetic tongue surface could also serve as a unique mechanical tool to help detect counterfeit in food and high-valued beverages based on textural attributes, which is a global concern and can help to ensure food safety."

"Ultimately, our hope is that the surface we have designed can be important in understanding how the biomechanics of the tongue underpin the fundamentals of human feeding and speech," they said

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