Finally! A Swarm of Tiny Robots Could Soon Brush and Floss Your Teeth for You

Look mom, no hands!

Lying to your dentist about how much you brush and floss could soon become a thing of the past—you might be able to outsource that twice-daily ritual to "toothbrushing microbots" that make electric brushes and 6-in-1 mouthwashes look downright primitive. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say they've developed a hands-free system of microrobots that could act as toothbrush, floss and rinse, all in one. Read on to find out how it works and who could benefit.

1
Hands-Free Toothbrushing?

Hand throws plastic toothbrush into trash bin.
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"Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have hard time cleaning their teeth" said Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor at Penn's School of Dental Medicine and co-corresponding author of a proof-of-concept study. "You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it's a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way."

2
How It Works

Minjun Oh/Penn Dental Medicine

"The design of the toothbrush has remained relatively unchanged for millennia," said Koo. "It's a technology that has not been disrupted in decades." The researchers' system is disruptive indeed: Microrobots made of iron oxide nanoparticles are controlled by a magnetic field; they can change their motion and configuration to form bristles that brush plaque from teeth or long, narrow strings that can floss between them. No matter what form they take, the nanoparticles would produce antimicrobial agents that kill harmful oral bacteria.

3
Nanoparticles Controlled By Magnetics

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"Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways," said Edward Steager, a senior research investigator in Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-corresponding author of the study. "We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically."

4
System Started As Two Separate Projects

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The developed system started as two distinct projects. A group led by Koo was trying to develop nanoparticles that would release free radicals to neutralize harmful dental bacteria. Steager and his associates were studying how nanoparticles could form magnetically controlled microrobots. The two ultimately merged their ideas into one technology.

5
Could Benefit Disabled, Elderly

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The system is highly adaptable, and can be personalized for all kinds of mouths and teeth. "It doesn't matter if you have straight teeth or misaligned teeth, it will adapt to different surfaces," said Koo. "The system can adjust to all the nooks and crannies in the oral cavity." The researchers say microrobots could particularly help the elderly, the disabled, and other people with reduced dexterity maintain their oral health. It's unclear when the system might make it to market, but the FDA has approved the use of microrobots for other medical purposes, including contrast agents that are injected into MRI patients and delivery mechanisms for certain drugs.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more
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