Just as many people have replaced their manual toothbrushes with an electric one, robots could also usher in a new era of dental cleaning.
Scientists have created a swarm of shape-shifting microrobots that they claim can brush, rinse and floss your teeth at the same time.
In a proof-of-concept study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania showed that the hands-free system can effectively automate the treatment and removal of decay-causing bacteria and plaque.
The system could be particularly valuable for people who lack the manual dexterity to effectively clean their teeth themselves, the experts said.
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity.
Using a magnetic field, researchers were able to direct their movement and configuration to form either brush-like structures that sweep plaque away from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slide between teeth like a piece of floss.
In both cases, a catalytic reaction causes the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria.
Futuristic: In a proof-of-concept study, scientists have created a swarm of shape-shifting microrobots that they say can brush, rinse and floss your teeth at the same time. The nanoparticles have catalytic properties that eliminate pathogens that cause tooth decay
The team conducted experiments on fake and real human teeth and found that the microbots could transform into various shapes to nearly eliminate the sticky biofilms that lead to cavities and gum disease.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can be challenging for many people, especially those who have difficulty brushing their teeth,” said study author Hyun Koo, a professor in the Department of Orthodontics at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine.
‘You should brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it is a manual, multi-step process.
“The big innovation here is that the robotic system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
Fellow study author Edward Steager, a senior research researcher at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, said: “Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled in surprising ways using magnetic fields.
‘We form bristles that can stretch, sweep and even move back and forth across a space, just like flossing.
“The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm can reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to perform nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.’
Koo added, “Toothbrush design has remained relatively unchanged for millennia.”
While the addition of electric motors increased the basic ‘brush-on-a-stick’ format, the fundamental concept has remained the same.
How it works: This image shows how researchers were able to control the movement and configuration of the microrobots to form either brush-like structures that sweep plaque away from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slide between teeth like a piece of floss
“It’s a technology that hasn’t been disrupted in decades,” he said.
The researchers optimized the movements of the microrobots on a slice of tooth-like material.
They then tested the performance of the bots, adapting to the complex topography of the tooth surface, interdental surfaces and gums, using 3D-printed tooth models based on scans of human teeth from the dental clinic.
Finally, they tested the microrobots on real human teeth mounted to mimic the position of teeth in the oral cavity.
On these different surfaces, the researchers found that the microrobotics system could effectively eliminate biofilms and remove any detectable pathogens.
The iron oxide nanoparticles are FDA-approved for other uses, and testing the bristles on an animal model showed they don’t damage gums.
“It doesn’t matter if you have straight teeth or misaligned teeth, it adapts to different surfaces,” Koo says. ‘The system can adapt to every nook and cranny in the oral cavity.’
The system is also fully programmable.
The team’s roboticists and engineers used variations in the magnetic field to fine-tune the microrobots’ movements and to control the stiffness and length of the bristles.
They found that the tips of the bristles could be made firm enough to remove biofilms, but soft enough to prevent damage to the gums.
The adaptable nature of the system could make it soft enough for clinical use, the researchers say, as well as personalized, able to adapt to the unique topographies of a patient’s oral cavity.
To bring this innovation to the stage of availability to the public, the Penn team continues to optimize the robots’ movements and is considering different ways to deliver the microrobots through devices that fit in the mouth.
“We have this technology that is as or more effective than brushing and flossing, but it doesn’t require manual dexterity,” says Koo.
‘We would like to see this help the geriatric population and people with disabilities. We think it will disrupt current modalities and significantly advance oral care.”
The study is published in the journal ACS Nano.
HUMAN BRAIN WILL CONNECT TO COMPUTERS ‘WITHIN DECADES’
In a new paper published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers have entered into an international collaboration that predicts groundbreaking developments in the world of Human Brain/Cloud Interfaces in the coming decades.
Using a combination of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and other more traditional computers, researchers say humans can seamlessly connect their brains to a cloud of computer(s) to get information from the Internet in real time.
According to Robert Freitas Jr., the study’s senior author, a fleet of nanobots embedded in our brains would act as liaisons for the human mind and supercomputers, enabling “matrix-style” information downloads.
“These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier and accurately auto-position themselves between or even within brain cells,” Freitas explains.
“They would then wirelessly transmit encrypted information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain state monitoring and data extraction.”
The interfaces wouldn’t just stop at linking people and computers, researchers say. A network of brains could also help shape what they call a “global super brain” that would enable collective thinking.