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Your tongue is a window into your health, study finds

[Oct. 21, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

In the world of medical diagnostics, the adage 'old is gold' finds new resonance, thanks to groundbreaking advancements in AI. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In the world of medical diagnostics, the adage 'old is gold' finds new resonance, thanks to groundbreaking advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. A practice rooted in ancient Chinese tradition, spanning over two millennia, is undergoing a revolutionary resurgence.

The art of tongue diagnosis, once the domain of skilled herbalists who meticulously examined the human tongue to detect underlying illnesses, is witnessing a modern transformation. This time, however, it's not human eyes making the discernments, but sophisticated algorithms and digital imaging technologies.


As the global healthcare landscape evolves, particularly with the surge in telemedicine amidst pandemic constraints, remote health monitoring is no longer a convenience but a necessity. Herein lies the renaissance of tongue diagnostics, empowered by AI, to offer non-invasive, cost-effective, and highly accurate health assessments, all from the comfort of one's home.

A recent collaborative study by engineers from Middle Technical University (MTU), Baghdad, and the University of South Australia (UniSA) is propelling this ancient practice into the future. The researchers employed a standard USB web camera and computer to capture the tongue images of 50 patients diagnosed with diabetes, renal failure, and anaemia. These images were then meticulously compared against an extensive database comprising 9,000 tongue photographs, leveraging advanced image processing techniques.


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The results were nothing short of astounding. The innovative methodology correctly diagnosed the illnesses in an astonishing 94 per cent of cases, standing in comparison with conventional laboratory results. In a world-first, the system also dispatched a voicemail to the patient or their designated health provider, succinctly detailing the tongue colour and corresponding disease diagnosis.

MTU and UniSA's Adjunct Associate Professor Ali Al-Naji, a leading figure in this pioneering research, along with his esteemed colleagues, recently published their insights on the global advancements in computer-aided disease diagnosis via tongue analysis in the reputable AIP Conference Proceedings.


"Thousands of years ago, Chinese medicine pioneered the practice of examining the tongue to detect illness," Assoc Prof Al-Naji stated, acknowledging the profound historical roots of this technique. "Conventional medicine has long endorsed this method, demonstrating that the colour, shape, and thickness of the tongue can reveal signs of diabetes, liver issues, circulatory and digestive problems, as well as blood and heart diseases."

Computer-aided tongue diagnostic systems can now identify diseases like COVID. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

The implications of integrating AI into this traditional diagnostic approach are manifold. "Taking this a step further, new methods for diagnosing disease from the tongue's appearance are now being done remotely using artificial intelligence and a camera – even a smartphone," Al-Naji explained. "Computerised tongue analysis is highly accurate and could help diagnose diseases remotely in a safe, effective, easy, painless, and cost-effective way. This is especially relevant in the wake of a global pandemic like COVID, where access to health centres can be compromised."


Tongue diagnostics, while seemingly straightforward, offers a wealth of information. For instance, diabetes patients often present with a yellow tongue, while individuals battling cancer may have a purple tongue accompanied by a thick, greasy coating. Acute stroke patients tend to have a distinctly red, often crooked tongue.

Tongue image of nine constitutions in traditional Chinese medicine. (CREDIT: Medical Review)

Further supporting the efficacy of tongue-based diagnostics, a 2022 study conducted in Ukraine analyzed tongue images from 135 COVID-19 patients using a smartphone. The findings were telling: 64% of patients with a mild infection had a pale pink tongue, 62% with a moderate infection had a red tongue, and a staggering 99% of those with a severe infection presented with a dark red tongue.

This non-invasive diagnostic method isn't just applicable to infectious diseases. Prior studies employing tongue diagnostic systems have successfully pinpointed conditions as varied as appendicitis, diabetes, and thyroid disease. "It is possible to diagnose with 80% accuracy more than 10 diseases that cause a visible change in tongue colour," Al-Naji asserts. "In our study, we achieved a 94% accuracy with three diseases, so the potential is there to fine-tune this research even further."


The beauty of this innovative approach lies in its simplicity and accessibility. With nothing more than a standard web camera or smartphone, patients worldwide could potentially receive prompt diagnoses, crucial for conditions necessitating early intervention.

Organ correspondence of tongue regions. (CREDIT: Medical Review)

However, the journey from traditional practice to AI-powered diagnostics wasn't an overnight transition. It's the result of years of cumulative research, technological advancements, and a renewed appreciation for ancient medical wisdom. The fusion of historical knowledge with cutting-edge technology underscores a promising trajectory for remote healthcare delivery.

As AI continues to permeate various facets of healthcare, its application in revitalizing historical diagnostic methods like tongue analysis is a testament to technology's role as a bridge between the past and the future. This symbiotic relationship doesn't erase history; instead, it amplifies its efficacy, adapting time-tested wisdom for contemporary challenges.


This revolutionary approach also marks a shift in patient empowerment, providing individuals with the tools to understand their health indicators better. The use of intuitive AI algorithms demystifies medical diagnostics, making it more accessible to the layperson while ensuring safety, privacy, and accuracy.

As the world still grapples with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare sector must continue to innovate. The resurgence of tongue diagnostics, powered by AI, is not merely a nod to the past but a leap toward a future where quality healthcare is accessible, no matter the distance. The marriage of tradition and technology stands as a beacon of hope, an emblem of innovative resilience, and a roadmap for future explorations at the intersection of healthcare, history, and artificial intelligence.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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