NWO subsidy for second-year Science Program bachelor’s students
MAASTRICHT. It hardly ever happens: bachelor’s students obtaining a NWO grant. Nevertheless, this is exactly what three students from the Maastricht Science Program managed to do. Before the summer, they received 27 thousand euro, for a subject that doesn’t immediately make you think ‘science’: bruxism. Otherwise known as tooth grinding.
One in five people suffer from it at some time in their lives: awake bruxism, or tooth grinding during the day. In addition to caries and gum diseases, it is the third greatest threat to teeth. The problem is that people don’t realise that they are doing it. That is why dentist Theo Kluskens, from MUMC, wants to build a clever mouthpiece that will make them aware of their unhealthy habit. Kluskens approached the MUMC engineering agency IDEE, which subsequently passed on the request to the Science Program in January. The objective was to create a polymer (like plastic) that could measure pressure, which is caused by teeth grinding along each other.
Science students Onno Akkermans, Mitch Spronck and Pegah Keshaniyan jumped at the occasion, but had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The first thing that Akkermans (21) does, is to google ‘pressure sensing polymer’. That is an immediate bull’s-eye. Straight off there is a Nature article about a polymer being used as ‘robot skin’. Could that so-called ‘polypyrrole’ also be used for the teeth-gnashing project? The students ordered the components, mixed them and one week later the material was ready for use. And it worked!
Lecturer Bart van Grinsven registered the students for a large chemistry congress in Hannover in spring. Akkermans gives a “pitch“ and a poster presentation to more than a hundred young researchers. “I am not a good speaker, talk rather quickly, but afterwards I received positive reactions. We are putting the finishing touches to a scientific publication that we will send to a congress organisation at the end of this month. I hope that we will be published in the accompanying journal Physica Status Solidi.”
The students also submitted an NWO application before the summer, for the Top sector Chemistry Student Competition, meant for ‘creative solutions for social and industrial challenges’. Of the nine teams, four were selected, including the students from the Science Program. They received 27 thousand euro and have worked full-time throughout the summer to create a final product out of the raw prototype. This must be completed by the end of November. Then it will be made known, during an NWO congress, which of the four participating teams has come up with the best product.
What will the Maastricht team present? Think of a mouthpiece with a built-in miniature sensor that uses the polymer to measure when the top and bottom jaw make contact, varying from a fleeting touch to the powerful clenching of the jaws. On the basis of all these contacts throughout the day, except during mealtimes, the mouthpiece will reveal a pattern. This will be a great benefit for the treatment.
“Just like some braces, the mouthpiece will also have a palate section to which we want to attach the battery. This is required for the Bluetooth feature built into the sensor. This sends a warning to a mobile telephone as soon as the person involved grinds his or her teeth. This can be in the form of a vibration or a sound. Then you know you have to stop.”
In the most favourable circumstances, the product will be put on the market and the students will receive part of the proceeds. “We were not able to patent it, because something similar already exists in Ireland, I believe. I am primarily involved in the research and the publication, but Mitch, who is a tooth grinder himself, already sees the advantages. He is more in touch with the commercial side. I would like to stay involved in any possible developments.”
A year ago, Akkermans had never heard of bruxism – who had? But in the first weeks of the project – you find yourself as a student in a business environment with all sorts of expectations and deadlines – he suddenly noticed that he had started to grind his teeth. “Not anymore, though. It all had to do with stress at that time.”