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San Diego Engineers Design Mouthguard To Wirelessly Monitor Saliva

Photo by David Wagner

This specially designed mouthguard is outfitted sensors and wireless transmitters in order to track changes in saliva, Sept. 2, 2015.

Aired 9/3/15 on KPBS News.

You may already be using a smartphone to track your steps, calories and sleep. A team of San Diego engineers hopes one day you'll also be able to track your saliva.

You may already be using a smartphone to track your steps, calories and sleep. A team of San Diego engineers hopes one day you'll also be able to track your saliva.

"It turns out saliva has very rich information about the chemicals in your body, and it's very easy to access," said Patrick Mercier, a UC San Diego engineering professor who co-led the design of a "smart" mouthguard built to track the body's chemical signals in real time using saliva.

Working with fellow UC San Diego professor Joseph Wang, Mercier and his colleagues took a typical athletic mouthguard and outfitted it with sensors and a wireless transmitter that can sync data with a smartphone.

In a new study, their prototype was able to continuously track levels of uric acid in the saliva of a hyperuricemia patient, then send that data to a smartphone via Bluetooth. The researchers say this kind of device could give patients greater access to their own medical data and make it easier to share with doctors.

Mercier said athletes could also find the mouthguard useful. Monitoring things like lactate could help them exercise more efficiently, he says.

"When you start producing too much lactate in your saliva, that means you're reaching a critical point in your workout, and maybe there's no actual benefit to continuing your workout," Mercier said.

Concussions have been studied as another possible application. Mercier said putting a motion sensor inside a football player's mouthguard could help detect the severity of head-on impacts, alerting players when they're likely to have suffered a concussion.

The mouthguard needs some refinement before anyone in the real world could actually wear it. The electronics need to be sealed in better, and the sensors could use some improvement, the researchers say. But they believe it could eventually help people keep better tabs on what's going on inside their bodies without having to poke under their skin.

"Right now, the conventional way to do that is through periodic blood draws, which is obviously not convenient to patients, athletes, soldiers, or to any group," Mercier said. "The ability to do this continuously and in real time is a big step forward."

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