New Imaging Technology Could Enable Dentists to Detect and Heal Tooth Cavities Much Earlier

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Dental caries — tooth decay —is one of the most prevalent oral diseases worldwide, but can be healed if detected early enough. While current diagnostic methods lack the sensitivity to detect early caries formation, researchers from York University in Toronto describe in the SPIE Journal of Biomedical Optics a new infrared imaging tool that can detect dental caries much sooner, while the progress of the cavity can be stopped or even reversed.

An article in the Journal of Biomedical Optics reports on a new method using infrared imaging for early detection of tooth decay. © SPIE DOI 10.1117/1.JBO.21.9.096003

An article in the Journal of Biomedical Optics reports on a new method using infrared imaging for early detection of tooth decay. © SPIE DOI 10.1117/1.JBO.21.9.096003

This paper will have a high impact on the way dentists diagnose incipient caries.

Dental caries— tooth decay — is the most prevalent dental disease among children and adults around the world. Left too long before treatment, the disease results in difficulty eating, infection, and even tooth loss. Research published this week by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, in the Journal of Biomedical Optics describes a method enabling much earlier detection using inexpensive long-wavelength infrared imaging.

A cavity begins with a minute amount of mineral loss from the tooth enamel surface, resulting from the acidic environment of dental plaques. If caries can be detected early enough, the progression can be stopped or even reversed.

Dentists currently rely on two methods to detect early caries: x-ray imaging and visual inspection of the tooth surface. But both of these diagnostics have limitations: dentists can’t see caries until it is relatively advanced, and x-rays can’t detect occlusal early caries — those on the biting surface of the tooth.

In “First step toward translation of thermophotonic lock-in imaging to dentistry as an early caries detection technology,” Ashkan Ojaghi, Artur Parkhimchyk, and Nima Tabatabaei of York University in Toronto describe a low-cost thermophotonic lock-in imaging (TPLI) imaging tool that would allow dentists to detect developing caries much earlier than x-rays or visual analysis.

The TPLI tool uses a long-wavelength infrared camera to detect the small amount of thermal infrared radiation emitted from dental caries after stimulation by a light source.

To test the effectiveness of this new imaging tool, the authors artificially induced early demineralization on an extracted human molar by submerging it in an acid solution for 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 days. The TPLI image taken after just 2 days clearly showed the presence of a lesion, whereas a trained dental practitioner could not visually detect the same lesion even after 10 days of demineralization.

Journal associate editor Andreas Mandelis, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Toronto, said, “This paper will have a high impact on the way dentists diagnose incipient caries. The longwave IR thermophotonic imaging technology is at its nascent steps, but this paper brings it closer to actual clinical practice.”

The tool has the benefits of being noncontact, noninvasive, and low-cost, and has great potential as a commercially viable diagnostic imaging device for dentistry.

Lihong Wang, Gene K. Beare Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biomedical Optics. The journal is published in print and digitally in the SPIE Digital Library, which contains more than 450,000 articles from SPIE journals, proceedings, and books, with approximately 18,000 new research papers added each year.

About SPIE

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, an educational not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based science, engineering, and technology. The Society serves nearly 264,000 constituents from approximately 166 countries, offering conferences and their proceedings, continuing education, books, journals, and the SPIE Digital Library. In 2015, SPIE provided more than $5.2 million in support of education and outreach programs. http://www.spie.org

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