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New device set to combat fear of the dentist's drill

Brunel's Open Science expertise links global research community

An innovative device that cancels out the noise of the dental drill could spell the end for anxiety-ridden trips to the dentist, according to experts at Brunel University, King’s College London and London South Bank University.

It is widely known that the sound of the dental drill is one of the prime causes of anxiety about dental treatment, and can lead to patients avoiding trips to the dentist because of it. This new device could help address people’s fears and encourage them to seek the oral healthcare treatment they need.

To use the device, patients simply plug it into their own MP3 player, and then plug their headphones into the device. This allows the patient to listen to their own music and hear their dentist speak, while completely blocking out the unpleasant sound of the drill and suction equipment.

Working in a similar way to noise-cancelling headphones, the device is designed to deal with the very high pitch of the dental drill. A special chip (a digital signal processor) analyses the incoming sound from microphones placed close to the dental drill and produces an inverted sound wave to cancel out unwanted noise in the headphone signal. It also uses ‘adaptive filtering’ technology, where electronic filters lock onto sound waves and remove them, even if the wave’s amplitude and frequency change as the drill is being used.

The fully functioning prototype is a result of over a decade of collaboration between dental and engineering researchers. The Brunel arm of the project, led by Dr Mark Atherton, Reader in Mechanical Engineering, was responsible for constructing the prototype and developing the filtering algorithm.

Dr Atherton explained: “This project is a testimony to teamwork across disciplines and institutions. The device is quite simple and uses technologies that will be straightforward to implement in a real product.

“The challenge has been in configuring the system to deal with the high frequency of the unwanted noise and to be able to track fast changes in frequency as the drill experiences varying cutting loads. Building on what we have achieved with adaptive filtering in the electronic domain, we are developing ‘anti-noise’ in the acoustic domain, which promises even better performance and could lead to better surgical instruments in general.”

Although the product is not yet available to dental practitioners, the project team is calling for an investor to help bring it to market. Professor Brian Millar at King’s said: “Many people put off going to the dentist because of anxiety associated with the noise of the dentist’s drill. But this device has the potential to make fear of the drill a thing of the past. The beauty of this gadget is that it would be fairly cost-effective for dentists to buy, and any patient with an MP3 player would be able to benefit from it, at no extra cost.”


For further information please contact:

Emma Reynolds, Press Officer at King’s College London
0207 848 4334

Press Office, Brunel University
01895 265585