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Tongue technology: new diagnostic system helps diagnose health remotely

Nadine Watters

Both fingernails and the condition of a person’s tongue have often been said to be telltale signs of a possible underlying health condition.

For example, pitted nails are common for people with psoriasis. They may also indicate a connective tissue disorder.(1)

A dry tongue could mean that a person is under a great deal of stress; the salivary glands often swell in such cases, causing dryness. On the other hand, extreme, ongoing dryness of the tongue may indicate an immunological disorder called Sjorgren’s syndrome.(2)

Unfortunately, for people unable to access a medical professional, changes in health are often left undiagnosed, and therefore, the individual remains untreated. However, thanks to a new diagnostic system created by the Department of Information Technology, Rajalakshmi Engineering College, in Chennai, India, remote digital analysis of a patient’s tongue is possible.(3)

Their discovery involved training a neural network so that questions pertaining to symptoms, coupled with a digitized image of the tongue, can produce a diagnosis which would allow a person to know if further medical assessments are necessary. Texture, discoloration and engorgement are the main changes in the tongue that the diagnostic system analyzes, although other factors involving the tongue that may point to illness are also taken into consideration.

Details of the new system: better diagnoses for those unable to seek immediate help

The findings were published in the International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology. Titled, “Virtual doctor: an artificial medical diagnostic system based on hard and soft inputs,” the article states the following, summarizing the overall essence of the research:

The objective of this research is to develop an automatic medical diagnostic system which can be readily available to the common man, especially to those who cannot receive proper medical care. The approach basically includes a combination of soft and hard inputs.(4)

It’s explained that soft inputs refer to basic symptoms such as cough or fever. Hard inputs refers to the tongue images used by the medical professional to assess the particular disorder.

The Journal outlines that a series of algorithms are developed to help make diagnoses a reality:

Once the feature vectors are encoded from the hard and soft inputs, they are fed to a neural network for developing a classification model. Neural network is trained with four different algorithms and the performance is analysed.(4)

Currently, the system that’s been developed can diagnose 14 conditions.

For example, black tongue discoloration may mean that there’s a fungal overgrowth due to excessive antibiotic use. Ulcers on the tongue could mean the person has Crohn’s disease, while textures such as “beefiness” or smoothness could indicated vitamin deficiencies. The images of the tongue are assessed along with the soft inputs, to develop as comprehensive a diagnosis as possible. For example, it may be determined that changes in the tongue are due to allergies, food poisoning, flu, bronchitis or diverticulitis, to name a few illnesses.(3)

The tongue as an important indication of health

Many alternative and complementary therapies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and naturopathy have analyzed the tongue in order to help identify a potential health problem. “Your tongue is richly supplied with blood vessels,” says naturopath Laurence Kirk of The British College of Naturopath and Osteopathy. “Thanks to a constant flow of saliva, it is constantly being cleaned, which discourages harmful bacteria forming in the mouth area.”(2)

Many people know from experience, however, that examining the tongue is something that many traditional doctors do. They often ask patients to stick out their tongue, using a depressor and light to view it. Many times, they may wrap the tip of the tongue in a piece of gauze so they can lift it with ease and view underneath as well as the sides. Therefore, examination of the entire area has often been a source closely linked to providing medical experts with more insight into health.

“When your doctor asks you to stick out your tongue, he could be looking for signs of anaemia, cyanosis – when not enough oxygen reaches the lungs – infections such as thrush, dehydration and kidney problems,” says Dr Richard Halvorsen. “Tongue diagnosis carried out by a western trained doctor is based on scientific evidence and is an effective way of spotting symptoms.”(2)

Sources for this article include: