Science Briefs: Cute way to make bland food nice

Cute way to make bland food nice

In two years, you might be able to use a special spoon that can make a bland scoop of porridge taste sweet, sour or even bitter.

The base of the spoon would have two electrode strips, which when in contact with your tongue, send electric pulses to stimulate your taste buds to mimic the different tastes.

At the same time, a light-emitting diode (LED) will flash a colour associated with the desired taste. This would be red for bitterness, blue for saltiness and green for sourness.

The same concept has been applied to chopsticks, a soup bowl and a beverage bottle.

Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe, the lead researcher behind the technology, said the inventions could benefit people on restricted diets due to medical conditions. "The palatability of the bland food can be increased if the eating and drinking utensils themselves can deliver or enhance taste sensations," he said.

Dr Ranasinghe and his team from the National University of Singapore's Keio-NUS Cute (Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiment) Centre believe their technology can also be used to enhance digital interactions as well as virtual and augmented reality technologies. The team is in talks with an industry partner to manufacture some of these utensils to start field trials and hopes to get the products commercialised in two years.

Gene that forms nose identified

Singapore scientists have discovered the gene responsible for a baby's development of a nose when it is in the womb. The gene, SMCHD1, when mutated causes a nose not to form - a condition known as congenital arhinia.

In a study of 14 unrelated individuals with the condition, the team from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) found that SMCHD1 - an epigenetic regulator that switches on or off important genes depending on the cellular context - was mutated in all of them.

People with the condition have to go through a tracheotomy, where an incision is made in the windpipe to relieve an obstruction to breathing. The absence of a nose causes difficulties in breathing and eating, as well as eye abnormalities at times. It has also been linked in some people to reproductive defects.

Prior to this study, the gene was linked to a more common muscular disease known as facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy type 2 (FSHD2) - a muscle-weakening disorder which develops in adults that affects the face, shoulders and upper arms and can spread to other parts of the body over time.

A better understanding of SMCHD1 will provide insights for developing novel therapy for this muscle disorder, the scientists said.

Tests miss 'hidden hearing loss'

Traditional clinical hearing tests often fail to diagnose patients with a common form of inner ear damage, according to the findings of a University at Buffalo (UB) study.

This type of "hidden hearing loss" paradoxically presents itself as normal hearing in the clinic, where audiograms - the gold standard for measuring hearing thresholds - are typically done in a quiet room.

It turns out that the central auditory system can compensate for significant damage to the inner ear by turning up its volume control, partially overcoming the deficiency, said Dr Richard Salvi, director of UB's Centre for Hearing and Deafness, and the study's lead researcher. Said Dr Salvi: "You can have tremendous damage to inner hair cells in the ear that transmit information to the brain and still have a normal audiogram."

However, this hearing "compensation" works only in quiet environments.

"But people with this type of damage have difficulty hearing in certain situations, like hearing speech in a noisy room," he said.

Sound is converted to neural activity by the inner hair cells in the auditory part of the ear, called the cochlea. For people with inner hair cell loss, sound is less faithfully converted to neural activity in the cochlea.

Compiled by Samantha Boh

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline Science Briefs: Cute way to make bland food nice. Subscribe