The destiny of dentistry

The stereotypical visit to the dentist could be consigned once and for all to the scrap heap of time, thanks to an innovation from NASA’s Langley Research Lab.

As you lie helpless in the padded chair, the dazzling light affords occasional glimpses of the shiny instruments of torture. Seconds later, you are plunged into indescribable agony as the metal drill is driven inexorably towards your exposed, jangling nerves.

A little over the top? Some would say not. But now, the stereotypical visit to the dentist could be consigned once and for all to the scrap heap of time, thanks to an innovation from NASA’s Langley Research Lab.

A laser device designed at the lab could, say scientists, be a painless replacement for both the dentist’s drill and scalpel.

The use of lasers in dentistry is not new, they are used occasionally to work on hard tissue like teeth, and on soft tissue for gum treatment and oral surgery. But none do both, and buying two laser systems is incredibly expensive.

NASA’s researchers have demonstrated that the two laser wavelengths important to dentists can be produced from a single system by selecting the amount and rate of energy pumped into the laser system. This dramatically reduces cost and complexity; the new hardware is about one-half the size of two distinct laser systems, and is expected to cost less than $30,000

The technology is actually a spin-off of work to develop high power lasers for remote sensing of the atmosphere, a key element in NASA’s atmospheric sciences mission. The technology has also been used in aeronautics research including measurements of winds, wind shear and turbulence in flight and measurement of wake vortices from the ground in airport terminal areas. Those investigations led to the discovery that it is possible to selectively produce two or more useful wavelengths from a single laser source.

Assuming Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the technology by mid-2001, the goal is to begin sales of the device by the end of 2001.