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AI Discovers Our Tongues Are As Unique As Our Fingerprints

A child poking out their tongue catching a snowflake on it.
Credit: Nicole Elliott / Unsplash.
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The results offer an unprecedented insight into the biological make-up of our tongue’s surface and how our sense of taste and touch differ from person to person.

The research has huge potential for discovering individual food preferences, developing healthy food alternatives and early diagnosis of oral cancers in the future, experts say.

Tongue's functions

The human tongue is a highly sophisticated and complex organ. It’s surface is made up of hundreds of small buds – known as papillae – that assist with taste, talking and swallowing.

Of these numerous projections, the mushroom-shaped fungiform papillae hold our taste buds whereas the crown-shaped filiform papillae give the tongue its texture and sense of touch.

The taste function of our fungiform papillae has been well researched but little is known about the difference in shape, size and pattern of both forms of papillae between individuals.

Al learning

A team of researchers led by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, in collaboration with the University of Leeds, trained AI computer models to learn from three-dimensional microscopic scans of the human tongue, showing the unique features of papillae.

They fed the data from over two thousand detailed scans of individual papillae – taken from silicone moulds of fifteen people’s tongues – to the AI tool.

The AI models were designed to gain a better understanding of individual features of the participant’s papillae and to predict the age and gender of each volunteer.

The team used small volumes of data to train the AI models about the different features of the papillae, combined with a significant use of topology – an area of mathematics which studies how certain spaces are structured and connected.

Remarkable accuracy

This enabled the AI tool to predict the type of papillae to within 85 per cent accuracy and to map the position of filiform and fungiform papillae on the tongue’s surface.

Remarkably, the papillae were also found to be distinctive across all fifteen subjects and individuals could be identified with an accuracy of 48 per cent from a single papilla.

The findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The study received funding from UKRI's CDT in Biomedical AI and the European Research Council under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

This study brings us closer to understanding the complex architecture of tongue surfaces. “We were surprised to see how unique these micron-sized features are to each individual. Imagine being able to design personalized food customised to the conditions of specific people and vulnerable populations and thus ensure they can get proper nutrition whilst enjoying their food.

"We are now planning to use this technique combining AI with geometry and topology to identify micron-sized features in other biological surfaces. This can help in early detection and diagnosis of unusual growths in human tissues.

Senior author, Professor Rik SakarReader, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh

It was remarkable that the features based on topology worked so well for most types of analysis, and they were the most distinctive across individuals. This needs further study not only for the papillae, but also for other kinds of biological surfaces and medical conditions.

Lead author, Rayna AndreevaPhD student, Centre for Doctoral Training in Biomedical AI, University of Edinburgh

Reference: Andreeva R, Sarkar A, Sarkar R. Machine learning and topological data analysis identify unique features of human papillae in 3D scans. Scientific Reports. 2023;13(1):21529. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-46535-9

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