Have you ever wanted a more hands-off way to track your diet? How about a tiny sensor mounted directly on your tooth?
Turns out, that possibility isn't far off. Researchers from the Tufts University School of Engineering developed a 2mm x 2mm sensor in 2018 that tracks nutrition data in real-time. Information about everything from salt, glucose, and even alcohol consumption can be easily and efficiently collected. They're even able to transmit the data wirelessly thanks to the use of radiofrequency technology.
A mouthful of information
The tiny sensor is composed of three layers which together act like an antenna, collecting and transmitting waves in the radiofrequency spectrum. The innermost, central layer absorbs the chemicals and nutrients that come into contact with the sensor, while the other two layers towards the outside consist of two square-shaped gold rings. As an incoming wave hits the sensor, some of it is canceled out and the rest transmitted back. The sensor, however, can change what it absorbs.
As explained in the press release: "If the central layer takes on salt or ethanol, its electrical properties will shift, causing the sensor to absorb and transmit a different spectrum of radiofrequency waves, with varying intensity. That is how nutrients and other analytes can be detected and measured."
The result is comprehensive data generated from an intelligent sensor that sees all and knows all. Details about the sensor and the various tests performed appear in a paper published in the Advanced Materials journal.
A dental data dump
Though this is not the first tooth sensor of its kind, this particular tooth sensor seems to offer the most comprehensive vision for tracking and maintaining overall health, compared to previous technology.
A wearable sensor developed back in 2013 by a team from National Taiwan University's Department of Science and Information Engineering and Department of Electrical Engineering was able to transmit data to dentists to help patients maintain better oral health.
The result was providing clues to oral hygienists about habits which the patient may have been unaware of or felt uncomfortable sharing with the dentist. This sensor, significantly larger at about 11-12 mm, could not be fitted on an existing tooth but had to go over a separate artificial tooth.
The impact that a device like this could have for healthcare and medical professionals and researchers is significant.
"In theory, we can modify the bioresponsive layer in these sensors to target other chemicals—we are really limited only by our creativity,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto, Ph.D. and paper co-author and Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts.
“We have extended common RFID (radiofrequency ID) technology to a sensor package that can dynamically read and transmit information on its environment, whether it is affixed to a tooth, to skin, or any other surface.”
Smart tech for your body
Of course, smart tech that tracks your health isn't just limited to your mouth. University of California San Diego engineers developed a soft and stretch patch in February 2021 that can be worn on the neck to track blood pressure and heart rate. It also monitors the user's glucose, lactate, alcohol, or caffeine levels.
It is the first wearable device that monitors cardiovascular signals and multiple biochemical levels in the human body at the same time.
"Let's say you are monitoring your blood pressure, and you see spikes during the day, and think that something is wrong. But a biomarker reading could tell you if those spikes were due to an intake of alcohol or caffeine. This combination of sensors can give you that type of information," said first co-author Juliane Sempionatto, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student, in a press release.
The device is still being developed and therefore isn't available to the public for use, but these types of innovations offer hope to those who deal with chronic illnesses, or just want to be more aware of what's going on inside their bodies. The ability to monitor these variables in real-time — especially using less intrusive and more accurate tools than the wearables we have now – will be invaluable.