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Taking a Bite Out of Discomfort
Dentist examining a patient's teeth
Since the first days of people in space, there has been a connection between human spaceflight and dental care. Astronauts on early space missions ate their food from containers inspired by toothpaste tubes. Today, however, things have come full circle, and the world of dentistry is being inspired by NASA technology. Research done to improve life in space is also improving life on the ground through a variety of dental spinoffs.

Image to left: NASA is helping to develop a device that can detect the onset of periodontal disease. Credit: NASA

A new technology developed at NASA's Langley Research Center may become an important tool in the battle against tooth loss. NASA is working with the U.S. Navy to develop a new instrument that can detect the onset of periodontal disease. This disease is the single most destructive dental disease in adults over 35 years old. The instrument will use ultrasonic waves to examine teeth and surrounding tissues in a manner less invasive than conventional techniques. This device also gives dentists new ways to cut down on patient discomfort. Rather than sliding a metal probe between the teeth and gum as is done currently, dentists will simply run the new device along the gums. The technology used in the probe was originally developed as a way to detect cracks in airplanes. The ultrasonic waves were used to look inside airplane structures without having to take them apart.

DentaPure water purification system
Image to right: NASA technology was used to develop a device that helps decontaminate water during dental procedures. Credit: NASA

NASA technology has even been used to help prevent water contamination during dental procedures. MRLB International, Inc., used water purification technology developed for NASA to create DentaPure®, a cartridge that decontaminates water used in dental instruments. The cartridge incorporates a resin technology developed by Umpqua Research. That technology was originally developed for air and water purification in human spaceflight, and is similar to systems used for life support during space walks.

Over the years, NASA technology has made its way into the fields of dentistry and orthodontics in many other ways. Technology used to track heat-seeking missiles has been developed into invisible dental braces. Invisible dental braces are made from transparent polycrystalline alumina (TPA), which was developed for missile tracking. TPA is stronger than steel. It has light-absorbing qualities (which makes the material transparent), and its smooth, round properties resist breakage. Spacecraft tile technology has inspired advances in dental fillings. Materials developed to create better space suit helmet faceplates have also been considered for possible dental applications. At one point, children could even brush their teeth with an edible toothpaste, which was a special foamless toothpaste developed for astronauts so that they would not have to spit after they brushed their teeth. (Astronauts now use commercial toothpaste in space, spitting into towels when finished brushing.) Other recent spinoff technologies are improving the process of making and reading dental X-rays. NASA has also performed a great deal of research regarding shape-memory alloys, which are metals that return to their original shape if bent. It is believed that these metals could revolutionize braces in the future.

A dentist's drill in a mouth
Image to left: NASA technology is also being used to help make going to the dentist less painful. Credit: NASA

Another development for the future of painless dentistry may already be in the making, as well. Researchers at Langley created a method of producing two different wavelengths in a single laser. The technology was used to create better sensors for satellites and space probes. A private company learned of the new technology, and believed that there might be dental applications for the new laser. The goal of the research was a high-tech device that would replace both dental drills and scalpels for many purposes. The dual-wavelength nature of the laser would allow it to work either on the hard material of teeth or the softer tissue of gums. Using a laser for these procedures would be far less painful than using conventional methods. While a small number of dentists use lasers today, the expense of having to buy two different lasers prevents most from doing so. The new invention would allow dentists to buy just one piece of equipment in the same price range as the other two. While this device is not currently available, the research performed shows that it would be possible to create such a tool.

All of these spinoffs are just more examples of ways that new developments in aerospace technology are making life better on the ground, as well. So if your next visit to the dentist is a little less painful, you may have NASA to thank for it.

Published by NASAexplores
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