There are plenty of apps that track what you eat and drink so you can be healthier. But they are very imprecise and take considerable effort to update. Which is exactly why I don’t use them, saving my two fingers to stuff my face with a stream of Spanish tapas, all the wine ever, and roasted suckling pigs. This new tiny tooth-mounted 2 x 2 millimeter sensor can change that one day–the keeping track part, I mean, not the face stuffing.
The device–developed by a team of researchers at the Tufts University School of Engineering–is capable of detecting salt, glucose, and alcohol. Right now, the research team believes that the tooth sensor is going to be helpful for medical studies and to help with the healthcare of certain patients.
The flexible sensor can be applied to your teeth with an adhesive. It is made of two square-shaped layers of gold that sandwich a central bioresponsive layer. This layer reacts to those substances while the gold layers act as antennas. A mobile device equipped with a radiofrequency emitter sends a signal that is received by the sensor. Depending on what you’ve been eating, the sensor absorbs part of the signal and reflects the rest back to the mobile device.
The sensor could have important implications for healthcare and medical research. Right now, researchers and doctors rely on large mouth guards and wiring to track what nutrients patients are getting. But these degrade quickly, and they’re hard to use. With the tooth sensor, the user doesn’t have to do anything at all. The device makes detailed measurements, while the interface is invisible and unobtrusive (well, except for that little glint of gold).
Looking further afield, the tooth sensor could be the basis of a diet tracker. If a device can precisely track everything we eat and transmit it to a database, there will be no need for us to painstakingly keep a record of everything we put into our bodies. We will just know exactly how many calories we get in, and which kind of fats, proteins, minerals, or vitamins. Obviously, that will help people be a lot healthier. And with that information, doctors will be able to treat patients more accurately.
The technology could have other uses. According to coauthor and professor of engineering at Tufts Fiorenzo Omenetto, the research team can modify the bioresponsive layer to detect other chemicals, like vitamins or drugs. They also can use the technology to detect chemicals on skin or any other surface: Imagine a skin device that can react to sugars present in sweat to monitor diabetes.
As sensor technology evolves, we will see even smaller and more complex devices capable of detecting more compounds at the same time (according to the release footnotes, the U.S. Army and Navy are paying for this, so you can be sure we are going in that direction).
Incidentally, the tooth sensor is also a great plot device for a Black Mirror episode in which people who eat more calories than clinically allowed are sentenced to die, ground into cans of Emeril’s bolognese sauce. Delicious.