Just as many people have replaced their manual toothbrushes with electric ones, robots could usher in a new era of brushing.
Scientists have created a swarm of shape-shifting microrobots that they claim can brush, rinse and brush their teeth at the same time.
In a pilot study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have shown that a public address system can effectively automate the treatment and removal of caries-causing bacteria and plaque.
The system could be especially useful for those who lack the manual dexterity to effectively brush their own teeth, experts say.
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles, which have both catalytic and magnetic activity.
Using a magnetic field, the researchers were then able to manipulate their movement and configuration to form either bristle-like structures that sweep away plaque from the wide surfaces of the teeth, or elongated threads that can slide between teeth like a thread.
In both cases, a catalytic reaction causes the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria.
Futurism: In a proof-of-concept, scientists have created a swarm of shape-shifting microrobots that they say can brush, rinse, and brush their teeth at the same time. Nanoparticles have catalytic properties that destroy pathogens that cause caries.
The team conducted experiments with both simulated and real human teeth and found that the microbots could transform into various forms to nearly eliminate the sticky biofilms that lead to cavities and gum disease.
“Typical oral care is tiring and can create problems 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 School of Dentistry.
“You have to brush your teeth, then floss, then rinse your mouth; it is a manual, multi-step process.
“The big innovation here is that the robotic system can perform all three actions in one automated, hands-free way.”
Study co-author Edward Steeger, senior fellow at the Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said: “Nanoparticles can be shaped and manipulated using magnetic fields in amazing ways.
“We are forming bristles that can lengthen, sweep, and even move back and forth across space, like dental floss.
“It works like a robotic arm can reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to automatically assemble nanoparticles and control movement.”
Koo added: “The design of the toothbrush has remained relatively unchanged for millennia.”
While the addition of electric motors upped the basic bristle-on-a-stick format, the basic concept remained the same.
How it works: This figure shows how the researchers were able to manipulate the movement and configuration of the microrobots to form either bristle-like structures that sweep away plaque from wide tooth surfaces or elongated floss that can slide between teeth like floss.
“It’s a technology that hasn’t changed in decades,” he said.
The researchers optimized the movements of the microrobots on a small plate of jagged material.
They then tested the bots by adapting to the complex topography of the tooth surface, interdental surfaces, and gum line using 3D-printed teeth models based on scans of human teeth from a dental clinic.
Finally, they tested the microrobots on real human teeth, which were placed in such a way as to mimic the position of the teeth in the oral cavity.
On these various surfaces, the researchers found that the microrobot system could effectively eliminate biofilms, clearing them of all detectable pathogens.
Iron oxide nanoparticles have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other uses, and testing of bristle shapes in animal models has shown that they do not damage gum tissue.
“Whether your teeth are straight or uneven, they adapt to different surfaces,” Ku said. “The system can adapt to all the nooks and crannies of the mouth.”
The system is also fully programmable.
The team’s roboticists and engineers used changes in the magnetic field to fine-tune the movements of the microrobots, as well as control the stiffness and length of the bristles.
They found that the tips of the bristles could be made hard enough to remove biofilms, but soft enough not to damage the gums.
The customizable nature of the system could make it gentle enough for clinical use, but also personalized, able to adapt to a patient’s unique topographies, the researchers say.
To bring this innovation to the public, the Penn team continues to optimize the robots’ movements and is considering different ways to deliver the microrobots through mouth donning devices.
“We have technology that is as effective as brushing and flossing without requiring manual dexterity,” Koo said.
“We would like this to help the geriatric population and people with disabilities. We believe this will change existing practices and greatly improve oral care.”
The study was published in the journal AKS Nano.
THE HUMAN BRAIN WILL BE CONNECTED TO COMPUTERS “IN DECADES”
In a new paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers have embarked on an international collaboration that predicts groundbreaking developments in the human brain/cloud interface world over the next few decades.
Using a combination of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and other more traditional computing, the researchers say people will be able to seamlessly connect their brains to a cloud of computers to gather information from the Internet in real time.
According to Robert Freitas, Jr., senior author of the study, a fleet of nanorobots embedded in our brains will act as a link to the human mind and supercomputers to enable “matrix-style” loading of information.
“These devices will move through human vessels, cross the blood-brain barrier, and accurately automatically position themselves among or even inside brain cells,” Freitas explains.
“They will then wirelessly transmit the encoded information to and from a cloud network of supercomputers to monitor the state of the brain and extract data in real time.”
The researchers say that interfaces are not limited to connecting people and computers. The network of brains could also help form what they call a “global superbrain” that would enable collective thinking.