Digital 'Lollipop' Will Zap Tongue with Flavor

b_250_0_16777215_00_images_obgrabber_2013-11_8362e2d552.jpgNimesha Ranasinghe (NEW YORK) -- Scientists in Singapore may finally have a solution for curbing a sweet tooth without risking cavities: a digital "lollipop." Researchers at the National University of Singapore are developing a digital "lollipop" from a digital taste stimulator that can mimic the flavors of salty, bitter, sour and sweet. The device, which does not exactly look like your average Blow-Pop, uses electrical current to simulate the four sensations on the tongue.

Currently the digital taste stimulator is a little clunky with electrodes that connect to a control center via laptop, but lead developer Nimesha Ranasinghe is working to reinvent the stimulator into a handheld form or lollipop.

According to Ranasinghe's website, the device manipulates different electric currents and makes slight changes in temperature to stimulate the tongue into tasting different flavors.

Ranasinghe told New Scientist magazine, if refined, the device could eventually be used to help keep people healthy by providing alternatives to actual food.

"People with diabetes might be able to use the taste synthesizer to simulate sweet sensations without harming their actual blood sugar levels," Ranasinghe told New Scientist.  "Cancer patients could use it to improve or regenerate a diminished sense of taste during chemotherapy."

Experts say that the technology for synthesizing taste is usually done with specific chemicals that create the four main taste sensations, but that electronic stimulation could be an interesting avenue for people who want to avoid chemicals.

Randall Reed, director for the Center of Sensory Biology and professor of Molecular Biology at Johns Hopkins University, said if the digital lollipop works it could help people either enhance or suppress certain senses.

Reed points out some people, such as the elderly or those suffering from Alzheimer's, can suffer a decline in their sensory system and that a strong artificial stimulant could potentially help people maintain their sense of taste by being a stronger stimulant than just normal food or drink.

"We could be building essentially sensory fireworks," said Reed.  "I expect in another decade or two that we will be using combinations of either designed chemicals or something potentially electrical…that provide unique combinations of taste and smell that are novel and different."

Reed said it's not inconceivable that a researcher will be able to someday create a kind of Willy Wonka-esque pill that could seamlessly transition through different flavors to create a new kind of flavor profile. Although Reed says it will be a while before a full Thanksgiving-style dinner can be delivered in pill form or via an electrical shock.

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