Undergraduate conducts high-tech tests on dental enamel

A undergraduate biomedical engineering major at The Johns Hopkins University is conducting ground-breaking research to help scientists find out how human tooth enamel is affected by acids that reach the mouth through acid reflux, a common digestive disorder. His work has been supported by an undergraduate research grant from the university.

Alan Braly, a 20-year-old junior who grew up in Goffstown, N.H., stumbled into tooth enamel testing last year while looking for a research project within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Timothy Weihs, an associate professor who had been supervising tooth enamel research, offered Braly a place in his lab. Initially, Braly wanted to compare healthy teeth with those taken from people suffering from acid reflux. This disorder causes stomach acid to back up into the mouth, where it can come into contact with and break down enamel, the tooth's tough outer layer.

As the project proceeded, however, Braly and Weihs discovered that before they could look at the effects of acid, Braly need to conduct more basic research concerning variations in the stiffness and hardness of enamel across the surface of a typical tooth. For these tests, Braly used a device called a nanoindenter. This instrument employs a computer and a microscope to define a set of locations where a diamond-tipped rod will push down into the enamel. The device allowed Braly to measure mechanical properties of tooth enamel, including stiffness (how easily the material bends or springs back to its original shape) and hardness (how well it resists permanent deformation from an outside force). When these measurements are completed, Braly hopes to learn more about why enamel has different properties in different areas of a tooth. "We're trying to find out if it has something to do with the molecular structure of the enamel or its chemi

Contact: Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins University

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